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Sam Trammell (standing) and Chandler Williams in Rope
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
The true-life crime committed by so-called "thrill killers" Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb continues to fascinate audiences. This year alone, we've seen an Off-Broadway musical by Stephen Dolginoff titled Thrill Me and an Off-Off-Broadway play by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Golden Age, both inspired in whole or in part by the brutal 1924 murder of 14-year-old Bobby Franks, whom Leopold and Loeb slew simply for the thrill of it. Now the very first dramatic treatment of the story, penned in 1929 by Patrick Hamilton, returns to the stage in a flawed but compelling revival directed by David Warren.

In Rope, which was the basis for a 1948 film by Alfred Hitchcock, Hamilton changed many details in regard to the murder, such as the location (the play is set in England, whereas Leopold and Loeb operated out of Chicago), the age of the victim (he's 20 in the play), the way in which the murderers are found out, and, of course, the names of all involved. Yet the most important facet of the story -- the very idea of "thrill killing" -- is maintained.

Another noteworthy aspect of the Leopold and Loeb case is that the two were lovers. Hamilton does not make their homosexual relationship explicit in the actual text of his play, but the current production does; it even includes a kiss between the characters Brandon (Sam Trammell) and Granillo (Chandler Williams), the play's Leopold and Loeb equivalents.

The show opens in darkness. Two men are heard grunting in some kind of exertion. A very dim light from a fireplace grate reveals two figures who begin to talk about the murder they just committed and the fact that they have now stashed the body inside a wooden chest placed center stage. It's an effective beginning that establishes the necessary tension and sense of mystery upon which the play depends.

Trammell manages to make Brandon quite charming; if it were not for the fact that the audience knows he's just killed a young man and then invited the victim's father over for a dinner served atop the chest in which the body is stashed, you'd swear he was a really nice guy. Williams never overdoes the nervousness or increasing drunkenness that afflicts Granillo. When he screams in terror, which happens at least twice in the show, the sound seems to come from somewhere in the nether regions of the character's soul. (While both screams are dramatically effective, the first one occurs while the party guests are in the next room, and one has to wonder why they don't rush in to see what's the matter.)

Zak Orth as Rupert Cadell -- the part that Jimmy Stewart played in the film version -- slightly overplays the aloof disdain that he affects throughout the majority of the production. It's interesting that Rupert comes across as the least likable of the three major characters, even though we know it's he who'll eventually solve the mystery surrounding the murder. This fact heightens the suspense of the piece because it calls into question what Rupert will do with the information once he's obtained it. The supporting roles are played in rather cartoonish fashion. John Lavelle's chipper and overly eager Kenneth Raglan is perhaps the most extreme example, but Christopher Duva's French servant Sabot and Lois Markle's not-altogether-there Mrs. Debenham are also fairly one-dimensional in both writing and performance.

All of the design elements come together quite nicely. James Youmans's set is a largely realistic representation of the flat that Brandon and Granillo share, yet it has a somewhat skewed perspective that makes the whole thing seem slighly off kilter. Jeff Croiter's lighting -- particularly in that dimly lit opening sequence -- is crucial in establishing the mood of the piece. Sound designer Kai Harada also contributes to the atmosphere, and Gregory Gale's period costumes are lovely.

The play is performed here in three acts, as per the script. This may have been fine for audiences in 1929, but I (and several people I've spoken with) would have much preferred it if Warren had cut one or both intermissions. The play occurs in real time, signified by a working clock placed prominently on the set, and would be more effective if performed straight through. As it is, the breaks interrupt the momentum of the piece, and the actors have to work hard at the top of the second and third acts just to build up to where they were when they left off. Another misstep is an extreme shift towards melodrama in the final scene; in particular, Orth's loud outbursts are over-the-top and not very convincing.

Still, it's a rare treat to experience the stage version of Rope, which has been overshadowed by Hitchcock's film. The current production is well worth seeing and, at times, thrilling.

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