Psycho teen killers

Feb 17, 1999 at 12:00 am

JET’s production of Never the Sinner has lofty ambitions. The story behind the infamous killing of 14-year-old Bobby Franks by college students Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb in 1923, John Logan’s drama attempts to use a historic event to comment on a slew of what remain contemporary ills – murder, media sensationalism, courtroom heroics, capital punishment.

"Unfortunately, the issues raised by this play could be from today’s headlines," writes John Michael Manfredi in his director’s notes. The play raises questions, rather than provides answers, Manfredi explains, "but if we’ve done our job, you’ll be moved to think about these questions and that’s a beginning."

That the play strikes a contemporary chord is true enough. The smug, handsome Loeb could just as easily be the Grosse Pointe high school rapist, and the Chicago reporters drooling after his and Leopold’s every move just as well be scabs at either of Detroit’s dailies. The courtroom theatrics of Robert Crowe and Clarence Darrow become, of course, those of Christopher Darden and F. Lee Bailey, of O.J. trial fame. Manfredi obviously believes this is the play’s greatest strength. And it could have been, if the play had lived up to the challenge. But it does not.

The play takes place entirely inside a courtroom during lengthy sentencing hearings for Leopold and Loeb. Through flashbacks, we witness the cold-blooded murder and its calculated planning. We come to understand that the killers see murder as an intellectual pursuit. We learn of Babe (Leopold) and Dickie’s privileged upbringing, and catch glimpse after glimpse of their secret homosexual relationship.

As we’ve learned from "Court TV," every legal melodrama creates a hero. Mine was Hal Youngblood as Darrow, who spends much of the first act scowling furtively, and quite effectively. John Hawkinson is brilliantly sycophantic as Loeb. Monika Essen’s set design, with blown-up photographs and newspaper accounts of the trial, underscores the media’s role in the whole affair.

While the drama works as an interesting narrative, however, it fails as social commentary. This is due in part to weaknesses in the script. The lawyers’ lengthy commentaries on capital punishment and the politics of the legal system are contrived and overwrought, for instance, and Leopold and Loeb’s sappy realization of their own mortality clichéd. The story is woven together by three reporters who belt out headlines in an attempt to underscore the media spectacle that the Leopold and Loeb case became. Since the reporters do little more than mill about the stage, however, this is a relatively weak vehicle through which to indict the media for their handling of this, or any, story.

But the biggest problem with Never the Sinner is that Logan does not push the envelope in any way. This failing may have less to do with his script and more to do with his subjects. When we’re discussing children killing children or the grave injustice of capital punishment, perhaps we should be raising names like Nathan Abraham, the 11-year-old murder defendant in Pontiac, and Mumia Abu-Jamal, rather than Leopold and Loeb.

In the end, I was entertained by Never the Sinner, but I was not moved.