Tuesday, February 19, 2008

review of "Dickie & Babe: The TRUTH About Leopold & Loeb"

playing at Hollywood's Blank Theater Company through March 16

Thrill Died

In "Dickie & Babe," too much evidence nearly derails the lurid appeal of a sociopath’s sex life
by Michael Bowen

Extra! Extra! Read all about it! Teenagers testify from beyond the grave!

Facts can guide us toward the truth, or they can get in its way. In his new play about the notorious Leopold and Loeb kidnap-murder case in 1924 Chicago, Daniel Henning falls into the trap of documentary drama — piling on the evidence — especially in his 90-minute first act. But Dickie & Babe: The TRUTH About Leopold & Loeb (at Hollywood’s Blank Theater Company through March 16) provides fascinating insights into untrammeled egotism — and into the ways a homophobic society pushes some gay men into self-destruction.
Henning (who wrote and directed this drama, and who also acts as the Blank’s artistic director) has devoted years of research into posing a this question: Why would two superlatively, precociously intelligent young men throw away three lives by murdering a little boy?
Just for kicks. Yet in Henning’s formulation, there’s also a hint of self-punishment. Richard “Dickie” Loeb and Nathan “Babe” Leopold were hot for each other but had to keep it hidden. Since they were “getting away with” their sexual desires, why not get away with the perfect crime too? Except that they didn’t get away with either one and didn’t really want to.
Henning’s main revelations have to do with the degree to which Loeb was a sociopath and about the precise nature of the quasi-sexual relationship between “the Boys.” The sexual tension simmers when the two boys discover their love of power exchange, with Babe as the submissive and Dickie as the dominant. (Considering which was the master and which was the slave, maybe this duo should be billed instead as “Loeb and Leopold.”) As Babe, Aaron Himelstein — dour, self-possessed, yet diminutive and willing to obey — is most effective when displaying calm in the face of Niven’s jangling energy.
Directed to play Dickie as maniacal in his pursuit of pleasure, Nick Niven ratchets his hyperactivity meter up to maximum and then keeps it there for the duration. At first, all his attention-getting is engagingly childlike. But Niven’s frenzies are too big for the Blank’s small space and simply too manic for the role. As director, Henning maintains a hectic pace. Niven and Himelstein spin their chairs, veer close to each other’s desire, exchange longing glances with their backs literally up against a wall. Projected slides label the many scene shifts. And Henning knows some tricks of theatrical economy: He overlaps interrogations and lands zingers at the end of his play’s many blackout scenes. He also splits up the defense’s summation by Clarence Darrow (Weston Blakesley) — yes, there were celebrity lawyers and “Trials of the Century” even back in 1924 — with four flashbacks, each one humanizing the Boys and making the case for life imprisonment instead of the death penalty. Besides the two principals, six actors play 27 roles, taking breaks while seated in the rear-stage darkness like some kind of jury.
In interviews, press releases — and even in his play’s title (“The TRUTH”) — Henning stretches his claims of accuracy too far: Even a two-and-a-half-hour play necessarily compresses events and refashions imagined conversations. He’d do better to claim that he’s approximating what happened 84 years ago. But Henning and his cast are still asserting that a one cost of a repressive society is the self-hatred instilled in its most reviled, rebellious individuals.


At February 23, 2008 1:25 AM , Blogger Bobo the Theater Ho said...

I managed to leave out that Stephen (?) Urie, who's on *Ugly Betty,* was in this show as Dickie's older brother and as the prosecuting D.A. and in a couple of other parts as well.


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