On May 21, 1924, two very young men from affluent Chicago families, Nathan “Babe” Leopold and Richard “Dickie” Loeb, kidnapped and coldly murdered 14-year-old Bobby Franks, simply for the thrill of it. The crime was (and still is) as shocking for its callousness as it was for its careful and deliberate pre-meditation, and both men were sentenced to life imprisonment. But for The Blank Theatre’s artistic director, Daniel Henning, that’s not the whole story. He meticulously researched the lives and crimes of the boys, uncovering previously unknown facts and clarifying truths behind misconceptions for his new play,
Dickie & Babe: The Truth About Leopold & Loeb.
While the piece is absorbing and well-written, it also comes off as rather academic — perhaps not surprising since it is billed as a “documentary play” and is based on trial transcripts, medical records, and his research findings. However, Henning’s direction is straightforward and solid, and the strong ensemble work is further elevated by several notable performances, including Ugly Betty star Michael Urie.
Dickie (Nick Niven) and Babe (Aaron Himelstein) were “close” friends — both off-the-charts brainiacs with sky-high superiority complexes. Dickie, who was personable and outgoing, was nonetheless obsessed with detective novels and an overwhelming desire to plan and commit a “perfect crime.” Babe was quieter and carried himself more formally. He spoke more than a dozen languages and was an expert ornithologist, so was accustomed to planning, waiting, and watching. His obsessiveness lay in his attraction to Loeb. As long as Loeb would reward him with sex, Leopold would do whatever his pal wanted. At first it was fairly penny ante stuff, but quickly grew into more serious crimes, and eventually escalated to a plan for kidnapping and murder.
The documentary foundation of the show straddles points both pro and con without landing firmly on either side. For example, it’s both fascinating and enlightening to hear actual trial transcript, presented as it truly happened — literally, in terse whispers between Judge Caverly (J. Richey Nash), prosecution witness Dr. Healy (Charlie Schlatter), prosecutor Robert Crowe (Michael Urie), and superstar defense council Clarence Darrow (Weston Blakesley). The dampened tone was due to the boy’s sexual “perversions,” which were being discussed; it was felt such details should not be made public. The flip side of that, however, is that the correlation between the hushed testimony and the inability of reporters to hear what was being said (thus being forced to speculate and so contributing to fuzzy interpretations about what happened), is downplayed.
The documentary dilemma presents dramaturgical challenges as well. Henning’s strict compliance with the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth is completely commendable, but it disallows dramatic flavoring that is sorely needed in places, such as the reenactment of the crime itself. We have little compassion or outrage for what happened to Bobby Franks (Caye Clark) because we have no emotional investment. There is also precious little dramatic tension since we have followed all along the plan to make it happen.
Himelstein gives Babe a brooding coolness and concentration, but he is often hard to hear. He is particularly effective in the interrogation scene at the top of Act II, which is also taken from legal transcripts. The language and description of various sexual acts, and Babe’s dispassionate but intelligent responses are unnerving. Niven acquits himself well enough, but tends to push a little too hard — especially on the maniacal end. Both actors could stand to go a shade or two darker in characterization as well.
The remaining six actors all carry multiple roles. Urie is particularly outstanding as the indomitable prosecutor and as Allan, Dickie’s straight-laced brother. Schlatter and Blakesley shine brightest in their courtroom personas as Dr. Healy and Darrow, and Nash’s serious judge is far removed from Hamlin Buchman, the rather hapless coach who is the early focus of Dickie and Babe’s insolence and a target for their burgeoning criminal escapades. Vicki Lewis provides tenderness as Babe’s sickly mother, and great comic relief in a variety of other roles.
Roy Rede’s simple yet versatile wood-paneled set is cleanly effective, and Rick Baumgartner’s projections of the people and places involved add yet another level of detail and authenticity to this still-compelling story.