Review: Hate the act but love the play

Never the Sinner John Houseman Theatre New York

Robert Tanitch
Friday 05 June 1998 00:02 BST

John Logan's Never the Sinner, which began on the Fringe and has successfully transferred to Off-Broadway, is based on the trial transcripts and the daily newspaper reports of the notorious Leopold and Loeb murder case of 1924, perhaps the most memorable of all the so-called "crimes of the century".

The story has often been told: first, obliquely by Patrick Hamilton in his 1929 play Rope (which was made into a film by Alfred Hitchcock in 1948) then, more directly by Meyer Levin in his 1957 novel Compulsion which was made into a film by Richard Fleischer in 1959 with Dean Stockwell and Bradford Dillman as Leopold and Loeb. The most recent film version was Tom Kalin's low-budget, impressionistic Swoon in 1991.

The murderers were two rich, sophisticated, intelligent college boys who killed a 14-year-old boy as an experiment to prove they were Nietzschean supermen. Their lawyer, the legendary Clarence Darrow, an opponent of the death penalty, made them alter their plea to guilty so that he could dispense with the jury and put the onus entirely on the judge. Darrow argued that if the law hung the boys then the law was no better than the boys. Justice, he said, must be tempered with compassion: hate the sin but not the sinner.

Logan's play is ingeniously constructed so that the trial is constantly interrupted for flashbacks and media coverage. Ethan McSweeny's taut production has an excellent pace and urgency. The reporters' headlines are punctuated with flashing photographic bulbs. The cold-blooded murder is no less chilling for being re-enacted in mime with just two chairs standing in for a car and an imaginary boy being bludgeoned to death.

Jason Bowcutt (Nathan Leopold) and Michael Solomon (Richard Loeb) are first-rate as the arrogant, smirking homosexual murderers/lovers. It would seem, initially, that the sadistic, cocksure Loeb, sexually roused at the thought of murder, is the more manipulative of the two; and this is underlined neatly when Loeb teaches Leopold how to dance. But it is the brainy, highly strung Leopold, who demands sex in exchange for his participation in crime, who emerges the stronger in defeat.

Clarence Darrow is always good value and has been played on film by Orson Welles (Compulsion) and Spencer Tracy (in Inherit the Wind, which dealt with the "Monkey Trial" of John T Scopes, who had been arrested for teaching Darwin's theories of evolution). Henry Fonda appeared as Darrow on stage in a one-man show.

Robert Hogan, who plays the lawyer here, handles his final two-day address, edited to six minutes, with laid-back expertise and without any resource to Wellesian exhibitionism. Glen Pannell, as the prosecuting counsel, is rightly no push-over.

Lou Stancari's set makes an immediate impression. The back wall is open shelves full of Leopold and Loeb memorabilia. The audience should be invited to inspect the contents before the play begins.

The boys were sentenced to life. Loeb was murdered in prison by a man who claimed he had made a pass at him. Leopold, a model prisoner, was paroled in 1958 and went to Puerto Rico where he was employed as a medical technician. He married a local woman in 1961 and died ten years later.

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