Leopold and Loeb, the celebrated thrill killers of 1920s Chicago, have inspired through the years various fictionalized retellings of their crime. One of the first to jump on the bandwagon was English playwright Patrick Hamilton with Rope, which premiered on stage in 1929 and was famously filmed by Alfred Hitchcock, with a screenplay by Arthur Laurents, in 1948. Hamilton's script emerges as a crafty drawing-room thriller in this polished revival.
The playwright moves the crime to London's ritzy Mayfair district. The two killers become young Oxford students who do away with a school chum to prove their superiority. They embellish their crime by inviting several guests for cocktails and serving the cocktail nibbles on top of the trunk in which they have stowed their victim.
Guests include the victim's father and aunt. Also present is an older friend, Rupert, a tart-tongued and embittered poet who lost a leg in World War I. As the evening progresses, Rupert senses what has happened and, in the final scene, confronts the hosts with the horror of their crime.
Director David Warren's production captures an engaging 1920s flavor, and his skillful pacing imbues the proceedings with considerable suspense as we wait for murder to out through the cocktail chatter. Brandon, the evil genius of the two killers, who are bonded by their sexual attraction for each other, can hardly keep from bragging about the murder, while his weaker colleague, Granillo, attempts to drown his trauma in liquor.
Sam Trammell as Brandon and Chandler Williams as Granillo make these twisted egos an insidiously charismatic pair. As Rupert, Zak Orth gives an idiosyncratic, oversized performance, but it commands attention and brings to explosive life the character's rather stilted final speeches of denunciation.
John Lavelle and Ginifer King make delightful bubble-headed young party guests, while Neil Vipond engages sympathy as the victim's unknowing father. One quibble with James Youmans' handsome set: That centerpiece trunk looks too small to contain a 20-year-old athlete.
Presented by Drama Dept., True Love Productions, Highbrow Entertainment, and The Zipper at the Zipper Theatre, 336 W. 37th St., NYC. Dec. 4-Jan. 15. Tue.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 p.m.; Sun., 2 and 7 p.m. Holiday schedule: Dec. 19-25: Mon.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Wed. and Fri., 3 p.m. Dec. 26-Jan. 1: Mon.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Wed. and Sat., 3 p.m. (212) 239-6200. Casting by Jodi Collins, CSA.