These connections swirled in my mind as I watched the recent, gripping production of Thrill Me: the Leopold and Loeb Story at Marigny Theatre. Leopold and Loeb were the teenage 'thrill killers" who committed their era's "crime of the century."
Thrill Me is a musical. It's not a Chicago-type of song fest in which leggy chorines weave a low-life fantasy celebrating the glamour of crime. It's not quite Brechtian either. Although Brecht was taken with the allure of crime, he injected caustic left-wing political and social criticism.
Thrill Me by Stephen Dolginoff, despite the songs, is not light entertainment. It surprises by taking the two adolescent murderers seriously and showing us the dynamic that propelled them to the ghastly, purposeless crime that made them famous. I typically resent being sentimentally manipulated, but I did not feel anything of the sort was afoot. Hannah Arendt, writing of the Nazis, spoke of the banality of evil. Maybe that's what makes this weird story so troubling and evocative.
When the play begins, the stage is dark. Musical director and accompanist Jim Walpole plays the overture on a baby grand piano. Nathan Leopold (Eric Michael Liddick) stands behind a bare podium. He answers questions from off-stage voices. We don't realize it at first, but these questions come from parole officers at Joliet prison in 1958. The parole board wants to know why Leopold committed the crime 34 years ago. "A child killed a child," Leopold says sadly. "I'm an old man now." But why did he do it? "It wasn't a dare or a whim. It's simply that I went along with him," meaning his partner Loeb.
The statement oversimplifies what happened, but there's something essentially true about it. For Leopold, the thrill means give me love, affection and sexual gratification. For Loeb, the thrill is about breaking laws, taking chances, proving his superiority to the mass of men being a Nietzschean superman.
Most of the play is in flashback as Leopold tells his story. Wearing a dark suit, he sits and stares through binoculars. Richard Loeb (Joshua Peterson), wearing a yellow suit, enters and teases him disdainfully. He clearly controls the friendship, and it's clearly more than mere friendship. Leopold and Loeb are upper class, privileged and intelligent, and they attended college together.
Leopold rebels against mistreatment by his hero, but his desire for Loeb is too strong. He craves sex and will do anything to get it. Here we enter an odd, but all too understandable dominance/submission analysis of the tragedy. Nietzche shares the blame with Aphrodite.
Loeb is the mastermind, but he doesn't know what sort of crime will both tantalize him and prove his superiority. He starts with arson, moves on to burglary and finally arrives at the idea of murder. Leopold tries to restrain him, but Loeb is mentally unbalanced in a way that requires both the crime and Leopold's obsequiousness. The two eventually write a contract defining their roles and sign it in blood.
But how will they commit the perfect murder? Aside from the genius of the murderers, there's a crucial twist. They will pick a boy they have no connection with. There will be no leads or motive.
Loeb, in perhaps his most Mephistophelian moment, approaches a schoolboy and offers him a ride in his Packard roadster. This is the boy's last ride. He is bludgeoned with a crowbar and left in a culvert.
Arrogant superiority has its limits, however. Leopold's glasses are found near the body, and as luck would have it, they are equipped with a special kind of hinge. The police have a critical clue.
A tip of the hat goes to director Glenn Meche for focusing on the human truth behind the sordid headlines. Liddick and Peterson gave moving, unvarnished portraits of these misguided souls. Timm Holt's murky lighting was an effective aid to the abstract staging, as were Donald James' apt costumes.