Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story by Stephen Dolginoff (book, music, and lyrics) is a seventy-five minute, one act musical about Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, friends who murdered a boy in 1924 just for the hell of it. This case was the inspiration for Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), and the trial of the two murderers was dramatized in Richard Fleischer’s Compulsion (1959), and it is those two films that formed all that I knew of the true crime before seeing this Short North Stage production. Needless to say, I had a lot to learn.
Nathan Leopold (Luke Stewart) and Richard Loeb (Evin Hoffman) are former classmates who meet up in Chicago, Loeb to cause trouble and Leopold to trail along hoping for some attention. Both men consider themselves superior beings coming from money and a life of privilege, and it is Loeb who likes to set fire to buildings to see what all he can get away with. Leopold trails along begrudgingly, hoping for moments of intimacy with Loeb.
Luke Stewart’s Leopold can barely contain his attraction for Loeb, but Evin Hoffman’s Loeb doesn’t even seem to like Leopold at all. Some of this is in the writing, the kind of antagonistic relationship between the two men as they manipulate each other, but as an audience member I felt no chemistry between the two leads at all. And, since they are the only actors in the play, it makes for a seat-squirming experience. I didn’t believe Leopold would be dumb enough to allow himself to lust after someone who openly appeared to despise him, and Loeb showed little charm that would’ve helped us understand Leopold’s attraction for him. Chemistry and genuine partnership could’ve sold this, as it is based on fact, but it feels like Evin Hoffman is miscast. Not that he isn’t talented or pretty to look at (he’s both), but I noted how withholding he was during the intimate moments he had with Luke Stewart. In moments when it would’ve made sense for Evin to allow himself to fully embrace Luke, giving Luke’s character that bit of incentive to go along with him, he comes off as stiff, like he is thinking about something else. On the other hand, Luke appears to be working overtime to keep everything moving and together, but he can’t make a connection where there isn’t one. The sexy advertising and warnings of strong themes and nudity are more a marketing gimmick than a promise, as Luke’s full-frontal nude scene is extremely brief (but notable, sure) and the affection displayed between the two men is limited.
The set is impressively decorated with enlarged photos and headlines from the period (my friend went up onto the stage after the performance to inspect it – it really was interesting to look at), but it also telegraphs way too much action before it unfolds. There is an attempt to bring some modern technology into the staging with an opening involving a webcam and text written on cue cards, but why? They certainly dress modern, and that’s okay, and the reel-to-reel tape player is acceptable as it is used to play excerpts of Leopold’s 1958 parole board hearing, but the rest of it? It didn’t work for me, though the writing is sound and the lyrics particularly good with interesting rhymes. The audience laughed at the song “Life Plus 99 Years” because of the absurdity of the moment, but I’m not so sure they would’ve laughed had the show been directed differently.
I left more frustrated than anything as the show itself is a good one but this production, no doubt with a lot of effort and talent behind it, is misguided. No one should be embarrassed by it, and it was performed well though in the wrong direction. It did serve to reinvigorate my interest in the actual crime, even if the production was decidedly ho-hum.
** out of ****
Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story continues through to June 21st, and more information can be found at http://www.shortnorthstage.org/calendar/v/455