When I hear a phrase like, "Mercy is the highest attribute of man"— especially from a defense lawyer— I usually reach for my gun, knowing that I'm about to be asked to forgive some unusually heinous act. And by the time John Logan's Never the Sinner finally got around to weighing the relative virtues of justice and mercy, I was ready to shout "Off with their heads!" out of sheer impatience.
The fault here lies not with the Mauckingbird company's highly satisfying and at times soaring production, but with Logan's meandering script. His drama, told in a series of flashbacks interrupted by irritating and unnecessary narrative bouts, uses these two easy theatrical devices to relate the not-so-easy case of Nathan Leopold and Richard "Dickie" Loeb, two upper-class Chicago teenagers who in 1924 murdered 14-year old-Bobby Franks out of their desire—as Nietzschean supermen—to commit the perfect crime.
Fascinating performances, highly nuanced direction and strong production values nevertheless manage to infuse tremendous theatrical power into this mediocre retelling. The opening moments of a roaring '20s sound design later set up a brutal contrast with the creaking doors and screaming tonal shifts found in a horror film, each of which amplifies the viciousness of a murder terrifyingly staged upon an imaginary child.
The telltale glasses
As Leopold, Brian Kurtas delivers his lines with an uncomfortable creepiness while pulling his jacket lapels together defensively or fidgeting with the telltale glasses that he left at the murder scene. And Maria Shaplin's lighting— which deftly mirrors the mood of each flashback— casts a permanent shadow over Kurtas's brow, highlighting the savage who lurks inside an intellectual genius.
As Loeb, Evan Jonigkeit appears malicious and gritty, irritating and seductive, and disturbs even while eliciting sympathy— already setting a high bar for performances even before the theater season has begun. Mary Anne Chiment's dapper suits hang and shimmer like silk drapes that reflect each boy's captivating intensity.
Through each scene of the second half, director Reynolds dangles us along like a cat chasing a string of "Why'd they do it?" and elicits performances from Kurtas and Jonigkeit that gaze outward like smiling stone faces slowly disfiguring into the whining, crying grimace of fearful children. The glib way in which these two Jewish kids toss around Nietzsche's ideas (later taken to a more horrifying fruition by the Nazis) only enhances the terror.
A manufactured conflict
Both Dan Kern as the defense attorney Clarence Darrow and Eric Kramer as prosecutor Robert Crowe deserve credit for measured deliveries that never allow their exaggerated speeches to descend into hyperbole. Yet this strong production can't hide the defects of a manufactured conflict that only appears in fits and starts, primarily in Darrow's reluctance to wrap his intellect around a thrill-killing, and procedural logjams between Darrow and Crowe.
And neither the script nor the production supports Darrow's contention that the psychological roots of the crime lay in the interweaving of Leopold's and Loeb's personalities, "but not in either boy alone."
Instead, Logan merely reduces these two would-be supermen into sniveling mamma's boys. Unlike the Media Theatre's excellent 2006 production of Stephen Dolginoff's insightful musical, Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story, here I left the theater feeling that I'd learned nothing new about these two young boys, and surely nothing that would lead me to apply a standard of mercy over the yardstick of punitive justice.