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At Signature Theatre to September 28 and at Rep Stage from October 10-26

Even patrons who don’t think John Logan’s Never the Sinner adds much to the dramatic dossier on ’20s thrill-killers Nathan “Babe” Leopold and Richard “Dickie” Loeb are apt to find Ethan McSweeny’s staging of the play pretty arresting.

He begins the first act with a subversive snigger from his leading characters and builds to a fatal chisel blow to the back of 14-year-old Bobby Franks’ head that is so theatrically explosive it feels like a pistol shot. I mean it as high praise when I say that, in retrospect, it’s hard to say which is more disquieting, the snigger or the blow.

Then, when the author begins modulating Act 2 into standard-issue courtroom drama, the director finds ways to let patrons down gracefully, leaving the impression not that he’s running out of pyrotechnics but that he’s unwilling to upstage actor James J. Lawless, who as defense attorney Clarence Darrow keeps finding ever more intriguing ways to make phrases like “hate the sin, never the sinner” sound freshly minted.

Along the way, McSweeny punctuates scenes with popping flashbulbs and hellish atmospherics from lighting designer Jeff Hill, brushes in everything from marshes to crowded courtrooms with David Maddox’s eerily effective sound effects, and sends the actors careening hither and yon around the Louise Nevelson-inspired sculptural bulkhead created by Lou Stancari—a prop-filled treasure wall that may be the closest thing to gallery-ready art you’ll ever see on a local stage (and yes, that includes the painting in Sunday in the Park With George).

The evening, in short, has been mounted to a fare-thee-well. Now if only it could answer the question that stumped onlookers in that Chicago courtroom in 1924 and that is still the only conceivable reason for revisiting this sordid pre-OJ “trial of the century”: Why?

Why would two bright, wealthy, carefree teenagers plan a brutal, arbitrary murder, turning a casual acquaintance into their unsuspecting victim? In fairness, there probably can’t be a really satisfactory answer to that question. Certainly, none has yet been provided by history. Nor by such other Leopold and Loeb exercises as Swoon, Rope, and Compulsion.

Still, there’s no shortage of hypotheses for Logan to choose from. There’s the Sexual Symbiosis theory, which has putative ladies-man Dickie gaining a partner in crime, and gay, bird-watching Babe gaining a partner in bed. And there’s the Nietzschean Superman theory—fomented by Babe through statements to the press—in which the lads regarded themselves as Übermenschen, exempt from laws governing mere mortals and free to exercise their “natural superiority” in whatever way they saw fit. Then, of course, there’s the No Moral Brakes theory, which holds simply that the barely post-adolescent 18-year-olds simply thought they could get away with it.

Logan makes a case for each of these possibilities before rendering a definitive answer irrelevant by turning Act 2 into a referendum on capital punishment. The prosecutor, played by ferociously buttoned-down Glen Pannell, suggests that anything less than a trip to the gallows will mark a horrific miscarriage of justice. Darrow, rumpled and seemingly genuinely puzzled by his clients’ lack of remorse, counters feelingly that “they’re boys…boys, and they’re scared.”

In this production, you’d have to say he’s wrong on the first count. I’d guess that neither Jason Patrick Bowcutt (Leopold) nor Michael Solomon (Loeb) is more than five or six years older than the teenagers he’s playing, but physically they’re clearly past the baby-fat stage, and at that age a half-decade is a lifetime. Nor are contemporary audiences quite as willing as folks in the 1920s to regard 18-year-olds as naifs. Today, while it’s easy enough to buy the characters as emotionally arrested—one defense witness suggests that they have the social development of 10-year-olds—their onstage smirks appear more creepy than boyish from the get-go.

But the second half of Darrow’s evaluation feels right on the money. These two are clearly panicked, with Bowcutt’s saucer eyes giving Leopold a caught-in-the-headlights look, and Solomon’s nervous intensity turning Loeb’s every laugh into a leer. At the final preview, Solomon was overplaying his hand somewhat, sneering so broadly and leaning so heavily on the character’s nastiness that it was hard to see what the besotted Leopold could possibly see in him. But in fairness, Logan has made Loeb the unrepentant heavy, providing the character with softness and self-doubt only late in the second act, when it’s too late to care much about him. He could use some softening in the early stages.

All subsidiary roles are assigned to a troika of reporters (assertively played by Bruce Nelson, Michelle Shupe, and Howard W. Overshown), who bark scene-setting Hearst-style headlines and step into the witness box when required, as psychiatrists, girlfriends, and the like. McSweeny’s staging makes them a Front Page-style Greek chorus, constantly hovering around the action, leaping in to effect transitions, so that they feel integral even when the headlines they’re barking mirror information (“Darrow Pleads Them Guilty! Darrow Runs From Jury! City Outraged!”) we’ve already gleaned from dialogue.

Logan wrote the play in 1986, before the high-profile trials that have made Court TV so popular. Some of his writing is just workmanlike, but he does have a way with a playfully arresting line (“Do Übermensch dance?”), and he’s a clever editor when he’s relying on the public record, as he does for Darrow’s climactic court summation.

What he doesn’t do is provide the answers his dramatic structure keeps promising and that theoretically justify an audience’s voyeurism in reliving so heinous a crime. For most of the second act, Darrow keeps coming back to the question of why—coming back to it so insistently, in fact, that the killers themselves finally look at each other in bewilderment and echo him.

At which point all the dramatic dust McSweeny has kicked up with theories of homosexual co-dependency and choreographed Nietzsche-inspired mind games comes to seem just one further layer of obfuscation. Artful, yes…and sometimes rivetingly theatrical. But not revealing, for he can’t provide answers if the author doesn’t. And the author doesn’t.CP