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Theatre Review (LA): Dickie And Babe: The Truth about Leopold and Loeb

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The Blank Theatre Company is known for its challenging, innovative, often award-winning productions. The company's artistic director, Daniel Henning, an outstanding director, is now trying his luck at playwriting. Well, he is a pretty lucky guy, because the result is a riveting production called Dickie and Babe: The Truth About Leopold and Loeb.

The play tells the familiar tale of the "thrill killers" Richard “Dickie” Loeb and Nathan “Babe” Leopold, who committed one of the most infamous crimes in U.S. history – kidnapping the fourteen-year-old Bobby Franks and killing him just for the thrill of the experience and to see if they could commit “the perfect crime.” Relying on actual transcripts and newly discovered documents, Henning has fashioned a very compelling play, reconstructing private conversations based on testimony and other descriptions by friends and family.

It is very difficult to make a workable play out of transcripts. Henning succeeds, for the most part, and is helped greatly by his inventive direction and Roy Rede's set design. Rede places the action in a neutral-looking space that suggests a courtroom. The only furniture are the chairs in the back where the cast sits, a big table which doubles as a bed, and wooden office/courtroom chairs on wheels which the actors move about the stage to recreate a car, the court, their college dorm rooms, etc. The design is simple, effective, and rather elegant.

The actors are very good. I had the good fortune to catch two understudies, Stacy Reed and Wilson Green, who capably fill the shoes of actors Michael Urie and Vicki Lewis. Nick Niven plays the hyper-kinetic Dickie, the stronger of the pair and perhaps the more disturbed. His character seems quite mad until he reads a letter he wrote to defense council Clarence Darrow, which was recently unearthed by author Henning, in which he thanks the defense counsel for his heartfelt and human pleadings.

The talented Weston Blakesley as Darrow movingly recreates the lawyer's summation to the jury, pleading for mercy because of the boys' ages (eighteen and nineteen). Nick Niven, bearing a striking resemblance to Dickie, succeeds at the very hard job of keeping his manic, seductive energy going throughout the play. We understand how Babe could have succumbed to his charms.

Aaron Himmelstein, who has a barrel full of impressive credits, plays the sexually suppressed and needy but brilliant Babe. I was particularly taken with his performance, and found myself sympathetic to his fatal attraction to Dickie. I believe one of the reasons Henning wrote this play was to set the record straight. The story has long been sensationalized to exploit the boys' Jewishness and homosexual relationship. The truth is, the crime had nothing to do with either. These were lonely, extremely intelligent boys who formed a fatal friendship. Though homosexuality played a part (at least for Babe, and manipulated by Dickie), what actually occurred, whispered in the court so as not to offend, was little more than bodily rubbing, which is part of the experimentation that young people do. The way Henning has captured their relationship is very believable, and totally and tragically understandable. I was fully immersed in the play and the performances – another success for The Blank Theatre Company. Through March 30.

About Robert Machray