BWW Review: The New Jewish Theatre's Taut and Intense NEVER THE SINNER
Like a lot of writer John Logan's works NEVER THE SINNER explores the darker side of humanity. It was his first play, but you wouldn't know it by the intensity it spawns as its tale unfolds. The New Jewish Theatre is presenting a taut production of this piece which focuses our attention on Leopold and Loeb, the teenage purveyors of the "crime of the century" in the early 1920's. It's a well crafted and dramatic show that only breaks the palpable tension that's been building in the air for an intermission about half way through it. What makes this story particularly timely, in my estimation, is that these two "kids" became enamored with Nietzche's idea of there being "supermen" who are above the law due to their supposed superiority. That's a drastic simplification of the concept as a whole, but the point is that we can still see this type of thinking causing turmoil in the current world we live in. This is a show that's definitely worthy of your time and attention.
Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb became notorious historical figures when they went on trial for the murder of a young boy named Bobby Franks in 1924. Convinced they were not bound by the morals or ethics that others were beholden to they committed a heinous crime, and displayed no remorse for their actions, thinking of it as a "philosophical" act. The play examines their entwined lives in flashbacks, sometimes non-linear in nature, that reveal their relationship with one another, at the same time that we are witness to bits of the trial itself.
Pete Winfrey and Jack Zanger give marvelous performances as Loeb and Leopold, respectively, and their chemistry together really allows the play to come alive. Winfrey's Loeb is a manipulative person, more consumed with crime pulps than the ornithological pursuits that drive Zanger's Leopold. But both characters view their worlds with a sort of disdain and boredom which, in the end, leads them down a dangerous path. Zanger deftly captures the brainy Leopold, whose thirst for knowledge is nearly equal to his desire for Loeb. Winfrey's Loeb brings an unpredictability to their shared passion, and it's a pact they make, which rewards criminal endeavors with sex, that seals their fate.
Eric Dean White generally underplays his role as prosecuting attorney, Robert Crowe, with his characters' righteous indignation flashing through only on occasion. That's a smart choice because it contrasts nicely with John Flack's more blustery portrayal of defense lawyer Clarence Darrow. The approach allows each to distinguish themselves, especially when Crowe argues for the death penalty, while Darrow asks for imprisonment during their closing statements. Maggie Conroy, Will Bonfiglio, and John Reidy round out the cast nicely in various supporting roles.
Director Rick Dildine gives us a very smartly conceived presentation that keeps the audience on the edge of their seats. He's aided by Peter and Margery Spack's brilliant scenic design that's partly a tribute to Leopold's love of ornithology, with pictures and diagrams of various winged specimens on view. Maureen Berry's lighting really captures the proper mood of each moment with clarity and precision, and Michele Friedman Siler's costumes evoke the era presented.
The New Jewish Theatre's production of NEVER THE SINNER provides an engrossing experience. Check it out through April 2, 2017.
Photo credit: Eric Woolsey