nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 25, 2005
Leopold and Loeb are the two young men who killed a teenage boy for what they said was the "thrill" of it. In 1924, they instantly became the talk of the nation, derided as monsters for a crime that seemed to have no purpose and for which they showed little if any remorse. The great Clarence Darrow talked the judge—literally—out of hanging them. They were sentenced instead to life in prison; Loeb was killed there ten years later, while Leopold was eventually paroled in 1958 and lived thirteen years more.
The case of Leopold and Loeb has inspired at least one great book (Meyer Levin's Compulsion), one great movie (Hitchcock's Rope), and one great play (John Logan's Never the Sinner). Is there something more about them that needs to be said in a musical?
The answer turns out to be, emphatically, yes: the Big Idea underlying Stephen Dolginoff's chamber musical Thrill Me, which has just opened off-Broadway at the York Theatre Company, is a grand and original one, linking the so-called crime of the century to a twisted and debilitating dysfunctional love affair: romance as cat-and-mouse, or maybe dog-eat-dog. Dolginoff postulates a sick symbiosis between Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold, the former seemingly calling all the shots and getting off on the mere fact of jerking his sometime lover "Babe" around, and the latter possessive, needy, and scarily manipulative. Their relationship is fueled by twin, forbidden (and complimentary) obsessions: Loeb, fancying himself some kind of Nietzschean "superman," has to commit crimes in order to become aroused, with the stakes getting ever higher until nothing short of murder will satisfy him; Leopold, driven by his infatuation with Loeb and, probably, his guilt over it and his fear of discovery. Nathan lets Richard talk him into being his accomplice in crime so that he can satisfy his own sexual urges.
It all comes down to a single, simple idea, the one that Dolginoff has embodied in his well-chosen title: Richard and Nathan look to one another for the thrills that ultimately define them as alive. It's a potent concept, and to work in the theatre it needs heat and intensity and an operatic soul: Sondheim's Passion, in which a plain older woman manipulates a young soldier into falling in love with her, would seem to be the model for a show of this nature.
So why does Thrill Me fail to deliver on its excellent promise? Though there is a sameness to some of his music, Dolginoff gets an awful lot of it right, it seems to me. Limiting his play to just the two characters of Leopold and Loeb seems like a great idea, for example, giving the piece a claustrophobic inevitability that works well. Lots of the song ideas are spot-on: a complicated duet called "A Written Contract" in which the two young men draft exactly that as they make a pact with the devil and each other; a seductive ballad for Loeb called "Roadster" in which he lures their prey, 13-year-old Bobby Franks, into his car for a final, fatal journey; a soaring title song, framing the one time we actually see the two make love, or at least their off-kilter approximation of same; and a scary finale called "Life Plus Ninety-Nine Years" in which the story's best surprise gets served up after the pair are sentenced following their murder trial.
No, it's the rest of the creative team that has let Dolginoff down, which is unfortunate because that's pretty much what happened to him two years ago when Thrill Me premiered at the Midtown International Theatre Festival. Director Michael Rupert gives the proceedings much less heat than they seem to require, and Matt Bauer (Leopold) and Doug Kreeger (Loeb) withhold even that, registering practically zero chemistry as a couple and coming across as both older and much less interesting than their characters ought to. (Just 19 years old when they committed the murder these guys need to be vividly and authentically adolescent, but they feel here like middle-aged men on Prozac: I wanted them to touch more, to interact more, to more clearly be trying to discover and make their way in a world they've decided only each other is good enough to occupy.)
The York Theatre Company has let the author and its audiences down with a production that can only be described, charitably, as thrifty. A lone accompanist on piano takes the place of a much-needed orchestra: more and bigger shadings and sounds would help bring Dolginoff's score to life. (My companion pointed out that having both characters sung by tenors is troublesome, and I agree: the variety that would have been achieved by making Leopold or Loeb into a baritone or even a bass seems worth exploring.) James Morgan's set, consisting of a couple of wooden boxes and a single table, amounts to practically nothing: it's the kind of stripped-down design you expect in a festival like the one where Thrill Me originated; it's pretty audacious to pretend it's adequate for an otherwise naturalistic off-Broadway play charging $55 for tickets. Jennifer Paar's costumes and Thom Weaver's lighting are more serviceable but not particularly imaginative.
I was looking forward to seeing this production of Thrill Me because when I saw the show in MITF I found it to be full of promise. Alas, that promise hasn't come close to being realized here. Maybe Thrill Me will get another life after this one. If it does, I hope Dolginoff finds a producer, director, and cast who will be able to prove why it's necessary for us to see these endlessly fascinating murderers on stage once again.