Folie a Deux
nytheatre.com review by Josh Sherman
October 30, 2006
Michelangelo said, "The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it." He would have nothing to complain about with the new company Maieutic Theater Works, who aim for nothing less than the theatrical exosphere in David Stalllings's debut piece Folie-a-Deux: Insanity in Pairs. They fall short of the stars, but certainly not from a lack of determination by the participants. The efforts made are commendable, and if a person is inclined to measure a piece of art's worth by the discussions brought up after the curtain drops, than Maieutic distinguishes itself from the pack in that regard. Unfortunately, the faults present in Folie-a-Deux's basic structure let down the company's high ambition and the result is a mixed bag.
Two grisly double murders have taken place a decade apart, perpetrated by two different same-sex couplings. The first is the often-told sensational case of Nathan Leopold and Dicky Loeb, the privileged, gay schoolboys who killed a 14-year-old boy with an ice chisel and an oily rag as a "social experiment" in Chicago in 1924. The second set of slayings are in Le Mans, France by the Papin sisters, two maids named Christine and Lea. After they've been caught naked in bed together, they batter their female employer with a hammer, then do the same with her young daughter and gouge their eyes out. This simultaneous action is narrated, in a way, by the famous attorney Clarence Darrow, who pops in and out to explain the actions of our protagonists. Darrow was the real attorney hired to defend Leopold and Loeb, pre-Scopes Monkey Trial. The parallel that Darrow draws is that individually, these characters are not crazy, but when they are placed together in close quarters, insanity ensues.
The name of the company is derived from the word maieutics, which is, as the program puts it, "a method of teaching introduced by Socrates based on the idea that the truth is latent in the mind of every human being... but needs to be 'given birth' by inducing the individual to formulate those concepts through a dialogue or logical sequence of questions." This exact text is in both the program and the play itself through a Darrow monologue—and that's overkill. The Darrow character is far too didactic and that's what drives the piece to its conclusion. He ruminates and lectures the audience while challenging them to think, almost as if he were teaching a class about a case-study of insanity in pairs. It's certainly thought-provoking material, but the play itself is too literal. There isn't much room for the actors to interact at all until Darrow confronts Leopold and Loeb in the second act, and it is truly riveting to watch that dialogue. But it takes a long time for us to get there (the play is an unruly two hours and twenty minutes long).
There is some fine, fine work turned in by Stallings and Brian Hathaway as Leopold and Loeb, respectively. There is not a moment in the piece when I did not believe that they were passionate lovers, or crazy, or capable of murder. These two actors have fantastic chemistry without overplaying it, and they inhabit both the comedic and tragic aspects of the characters—they manage to humanize the killers and are memorable in their roles. Conversely, the French accents from Hella Bel and Lauren Montgomery (as the Papin sisters) really slow down the pace of the play. There is also an unbelievable 180-degree turnaround in the script as the younger Lea talks of wanting a boyfriend and a normal life for the first half hour, and then suddenly winds up in bed with her crazy older sister. (It should be noted, for the squeamish, that if lesbian incest disturbs you, this is not your show.)
Scott Sortman plays Darrow like Wilford Brimley as a forensics professor, but it works well and kept me interested for what was sure to be the big payoff at the end of the play...which...never... comes. All that happens is that Darrow essentially notes the parallels of the cases, tells us in an epilogue what happened to the characters, and leaves us with our own thoughts. Granted, there is a lot to mull over—do people go crazy if the chemistry in pairs makes it so? Why did the Papin sisters choose incest over God? What motivates a killer? Fascinating stuff to be sure, and I commend Maieutic for taking risks with selecting the material—perhaps with some more buff and polish this company will hit the stars when they aim high again.