BWW Reviews: Sam Bass Presents Unnerving, Spectacularly Performed NEVER THE SINNER
Whenever our world is rocked by a senseless, deliberate act of violence, certain questions spread through our community like wildfire. Take the recent cases of Boston Marathon bombers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, Sandy Hook school shooter Adam Lanza, and the Aurora movie theater shooter James Eagan Holmes. After each event, the same questions rang out all across the country. Why? Why the act of violence? Why this particular target? Why now? And in all of the cases mentioned above, how could someone so young do something so terrible?
The same questions rocked the nation in 1924 when Nathan Leopold Jr., then age 18, and his best friend, Richard Loeb, then 19, brutally murdered a 14 year old by the name of Bobby Franks. John Logan's play Never the Sinner, now playing at Sam Bass Theater, explores the friendship between Leopold and Loeb, their crime, and their trial. In the process, the play touches on all of the questions that arise in the wake of such a horrible crime and ultimately suggests that 90 years later, similar crimes can and will be carried out.
The production has several aces up its sleeve, the first being John Logan's script. Logan-the scribe behind the plays Red and I'll Eat You Last, films Gladiator, The Aviator, Sweeney Todd, Hugo, and Skyfall, and the T.V. show Penny Dreadful-is easily one of the greatest contemporary writers in any medium. His gift for creating edge-of-your-seat pacing, engrossing and flawed characters, and witty dialogue shows through in Never the Sinner, Logan's 1985 work and first play. Logan's text uses the idea of sensationalized news coverage of the crime as a framing device and frequently gives us vignettes in flashback to flesh out the relationship between Leopold and Loeb. The nonlinear, episodic, theatrical nature of the text can be a bit tough to follow initially, but it does keep the audience in the palm of Logan's hand.
The material itself gives director Ashley Zeh and the cast plenty to work with, and they do a remarkable job. Zeh keeps the play squarely focused on the relationship between Leopold and Loeb. While her pacing could be a bit tighter, particularly in the ensemble moments, the characters she's pulling out of her leads and supporting cast are extremely well-defined. It's a remarkable feat considering the show, so I'm told, had only 9 rehearsals.
Brandon Coy and Felix Ferris, who play Leopold and Loeb respectively, give two of the best performances I've ever seen from other actors of their age. The two characters would challenge actors twice their age, and Coy and Ferris make it look easy. The dangerous, co-dependent relationship between their characters feels unsettlingly real. Early on, it's apparent that their bizarre relationship will lead to something dark. Coy plays Leopold as a mousey intellectual who's hopelessly infatuated with Loeb and, despite his actions, entirely sympathetic and almost tragic. As Loeb, Ferris lays on the charm and charisma while highlighting Loeb's extreme narcissism and his manipulation of Leopold's affections. Aside from perhaps Freddie Highmore's portrayal of a teenage Norman Bates in A&E's Bates Motel, I've never seen a young actor play a psychopath in such a chilling way.
As Leopold and Loeb's defense attorney, Clarence Darrow, and the prosecutor, Robert Crowe, Frank Benge and Cory Grabenstein give two outstanding supporting performances. As Darrow, Benge captures the internal conflict of a man who knows his clients are guilty and believes they are not worth saving. Grabenstein plays Crow as a bulldog out for blood. When Benge and Grabenstein get to square off against each other, sparks fly. It is possibly the most intense scene of the play and an absolute joy to watch.
NEVER THE SINNER plays the Sam Bass Theatre at 600 Lee Street, Round Rock now thru May 30th. Performances are Thursdays - Saturdays at 8pm. Tickets are $13-$18. For tickets and information, please visit www.sambasstheatre.org