We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Talking with Jason Patrick Bowcutt and Michael Solomon while the two are on a break from rehearsing John Logan’s play Never the Sinner at Signature Theatre, it’s obvious director Ethan McSweeny has done an excellent job casting teen thrill-killers Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. Whispering like friendly conspirators, they are a pair of rascals so charming and affable it’s hard to imagine them playing the real-life criminals who, in 1924, kidnapped, murdered, and mutilated 12-year-old Bobby Franks in Chicago. Which, of course, is the whole point—their ability to first hide, then slowly reveal, the corruption beneath their captivating personalities.

“I think that they’re only charming in their relationship with each other, in what they find in each other, and the type of people they are because of each other,” Bowcutt says. “Other than that, in their individualism, I just don’t know. I mean, speaking for Leopold, I don’t think he’s an especially charming person. But because Loeb enters his life, because of what Loeb brings to him, something comes alive in him. He comes alive.”

Solomon, who plays Loeb, immediately picks up where Bowcutt leaves off: “One of the alienists—it’s actually in the documentation of the trial—talks about their ‘inter-digited’ personalities. They were a nexus, the two of them, and it wouldn’t have happened if they hadn’t met. Leopold teaching Loeb the philosophy, the Nietzschean philosophy, and Loeb’s passion for detective novels….I think the two ideas coupled with one another and sparked what happened to Bobby Franks.”

Never the Sinner isn’t the first fictionalization of young Franks’ murder: There’s been the film Compulsion (starring Orson Welles), Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, the queer fave Swoon, and a recent play in New York, the unimaginatively titled Leopold and Loeb. Neither Bowcutt nor Solomon find any of these dramatizations particularly helpful. Instead, to prepare for their roles the two researched Leopold and Loeb historically, looking at court transcripts and studying what was written about the murderers (and, indeed, what the murderers themselves wrote) at the time of their crime.

“A lot has been written about their psychological state,” says Solomon. “Because really they’re just kids; they haven’t emotionally evolved. They’re like 10-year-olds, and I don’t know if you went through this state, but there’s a period of time in a boy’s youth of dominance and power, of killing bugs, all kinds of vices, blowing up grasshoppers,” Solomon says. “There’s a fascination there.”

“It’s that time when you come into your own, where suddenly everything that you’ve learned, all of your parents’ ideas, it all falls apart. You suddenly start questioning them, you start having your own ideas,” Bowcutt adds. “Everything you see is new.” The way Bowcutt and Solomon play off each other, joking and complementing one another’s thoughts, bespeaks a chemistry and intimacy that can’t be forced. It comes as no surprise, then, that they’ve worked together before—in Macbeth at Shakespeare Theatre and a production of Julius Caesar directed by McSweeny. Their close friendship and long history, both actors maintain, proved indispensable while they were working on the play’s most monstrous moment: the killing.

“The only way I can do it is by completely being with Michael and having it be about the two of us and this world we’ve created,” Bowcutt explains. “That’s the only way: For me to be completely in his world, as well as him being in mine. It’s one of the hardest scenes, the actual killing scene. But it works, I think, because of this extreme world we live in.”

“Yes,” Solomon says, putting out his cigarette. “Look, in essence, they’re 10-year-olds trapped in 19-year-old bodies. They’re very wealthy, they’re very intelligent, and they regard killing this little child as going out and shooting off bottle rockets. That’s where the excitement comes from.”—Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa