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at the 2nd Stage Theatre

Writers would do well to heed the saying "truth is no excuse"—meaning, the inclusion of an event just because it happened doesn't necessarily further a work's emotional impact. Daniel Henning, who wrote and directs this play, reportedly did exhaustive research into material surrounding the notorious 1924 kidnapping and murder of 14-year-old Bobby Franks in Chicago by a couple of very rich teenage geniuses, Nathan "Babe" Leopold and Richard "Dickie" Loeb, who were bent on proving they could get away with the most heinous crime conceivable. It is interesting to note that another company in town is tackling the same case with an entirely different approach. (See the Back Stage West review of Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story, Feb. 7, 2008.)

Henning may be historically accurate, but he fails to thread a clear line through the action. Instead of concentrating on the essence of the relationship between the boys and the escalating brutality of their acts, culminating in a momentous trial, he gets so bogged down with facts and details that the production loses its focus. His script spends an inordinate amount of time on scenes with a coach, hired by Loeb's mother to get the bookish boys involved in physical activity, who discovers the pair in a sexually compromising situation. Rather than adding to the thrust of the story, the character serves as a distraction.

In helming this piece, Hemming either directed or allowed Nick Niven as the supposedly brilliant and charismatic Loeb to perform in such a shrill, manic, and unsophisticated fashion that it is impossible to believe, as is generally accepted, that his character could charm anyone into committing such a savage crime. Conversely, Aaron Himelstein as Leopold is so tentative and delivers his lines in such a rote manner, as though he were reading a text, that he all but disappears from the proceedings. And although Himelstein goes through the motions, he never projects the obsessive passion for Loeb that impels his character to participate in the diabolical scheme. The dark, chilling nature of what was called the crime of the century is completely lost, and the evening comes across as bad burlesque in which nothing is to be taken seriously.

By the time Weston Blakesley, who has heartfelt moments as attorney Clarence Darrow, delivers passages from the lawyer's now famous courtroom speech against the death penalty, the dramatic potential of this intriguing subject has been totally squandered.

Presented by the Blank Theatre Company at the 2nd Stage Theatre, 6500 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Thu.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. Feb. 8-Mar. 16. (323) 661-9827.

Reviewed by Iris Mann

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