DICKIE AND BABE: THE TRUTH ABOUT LEOPOLD & LOEB


Having recently attended opening night of Nick DeGruccio’s outstanding
production of the Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story, I found Daniel Henning’s
superb Dickie & Babe: The Truth About Leopold & Loeb of special fascination.
Thrill Me is an 80-minute romantic musical, told entirely through the eyes of the
two Chicago teenagers who gained fame, and infamy, from the 1924 “thrill
killing” of 14-year-old Bobby Franks, and features an entirely fictional twist at its
conclusion.  Dickie & Babe runs twice as long, introduces over two dozen
additional characters including family members, friends, trial witnesses, and the
greatest attorney of his time, Clarence Darrow, and is scrupulously based on fact.

Don’t let Dickie & Babe’s longer running time scare you away.  Henning’s first-
ever play moves as lickety-split as a bullet train, whizzing from scene to scene at
a breakneck pace, never once letting interest flag.

Under Henning’s assured direction, the play features one of the most bravura
performances you’re ever likely to see, a brilliantly manic star turn by Nick Niven
as the maniacally brilliant Richard “Dickie” Loeb. Niven is matched every step of
the way by the splendidly understated work of Aaron Himelstein as Nathan
“Babe” Loeb. Backing the two leads up, both figuratively and literally, is a cast of
five of the finest actors likely to be assembled on a single stage this year.
Whenever not center-stage, Weston Blakeley, Vicki Lewis, J. Richey Nash, Charlie
Schlatter, and Michael Urie remain seated in the upstage shadows, observing
the action, rising to don a hat or jacket and become one of the four to six
supporting characters each of them portrays. This entirely theatrical device
works. Instead of exclaiming, “Oh, look, there’s Vicki Lewis playing another role,”
we accept that these are actors assuming the garb, and lives, of the supporting
characters.  They are both the real-life people that they portray, and themselves
watching the plot unfold.

In a series of rapidly shifting scenes, we follow the privileged Dickie and Babe
from their first meeting at age fifteen to the fateful day they committed the
“crime of the century” to the police investigation and finally to their trial and
imprisonment.  Babe, introduced to Dickie by a mutual friend as “the smartest
boy I know,” spoke eleven languages and, like Dickie, ended up graduating from
the university while still a teen. Babe soon became infatuated with the
charismatic Dickie, and when a family employee happened upon them in bed,
one atop the other, grinding their bodies together, the boys took him out in a
canoe and tried to drown him.  Later, during their studies in Chicago, there was
so much gossip about Babe’s sexual proclivities that Dickie made them keep
their friendship a secret. Dickie, obsessed with detective fiction and Nietzsche,
came to see the two of them as “Übermensch,” superior human beings who
were above the law.  Beginning with arson, Dickie goaded Babe into a series of
crimes with the promise of sex as a reward.  Robbery was the next step, followed
by kidnapping and murder, though Dickie’s plan was to claim that their victim
was still alive in order to be paid ransom by the murdered youth’s wealthy
parents.

Unlike Alex Schemmer’s slick and sophisticated Loeb in Thrill Me, Nick Niven’s
egomaniacal Dickie is always on the edge of hysteria.  It is a performance that
could have easily crossed over into caricature in the hands of a less talented
actor, but Niven keeps Dickie believable by pulling back whenever he’s about
to cross the line. In the same way, Aaron Himelstein creates a very different
Leopold than Stewart W. Calhoun’s pretty boy in Thrill Me. Himelstein’s Babe is a
brainy nerd, and just the type that would fall for a diametric opposite like the
charismatic Niven. Just as Niven never lets Dickie become “too much,”
Himelstein never lets Babe become “too little,” the intensity of his passion and
adoration for Dickie always there in his eyes.

Henning’s supporting cast is composed of some of the best actors in today’s
Hollywood, beginning with Michael Urie, of TV’s Ugly Betty. Urie, whose award-
worthy performance in the film WTC View demonstrated that this was a star
about to break through, portrays among others Dickie’s brother Allen and, most
notably, chief prosecutor Robert Crowe.  Urie is spellbinding as Crowe
interrogates the two killers, and in the courtroom scenes that make up much of
Act 2. Charlie Schlatter continues to fulfill the promise he showed in teen movie
roles in the late 80s, and besides proving that he can still play a teen here, does a
particularly good turn as Dr. Hulbert Bowman, whose testimony as to the nature
of Dickie and Babe’s sexual relationship was paramount to the trial’s outcome.
Urie and Schlatter have a memorable courtroom exchange relating to
Bowman’s testimony, which was so shocking to 1920s sensibilities that it could
only be whispered in court.  (One of the play’s most noteworthy aspects is that it
finally makes specific the “sexual perversions” that newspapers of the time could
only refer to in the vaguest of terms, “perversions” which ironically turn out to be
tame by modern standards.)

Weston Blakesley gives a commanding performance as Clarence Darrow (he too
essays several smaller roles), particularly in an abridgement of the brilliant
summation which has been called the finest speech of Darrow’s career.  J. Richey
Nash, so powerful in the previous Blank production, Heads, does fine work playing
six roles here, most prominently the servant who found Dickie and Babe in bed,
and Judge John R. Caverly, who presided over the trial.  In the only bit of
miscasting, Caye Clark looks far too young to be 14-year-old Bobby Franks.

Finally, returning to the scene of her last season’s Ovation award winning
performance in Hotel C’est L’Amour is the sensational Vicki Lewis, proving herself
the definition of versatility as a hooker, Babe’s mother, a hotel clerk, the
murdered child’s mother, a friend of Babe’s, and most notably, the
flibbertigibbet to end all flibbertigibbets, a flapper named Patches, whose
outrageous antics atop a table provide comic relief in Act 2.

Henning’s script is in fact full of sly humor, keeping Dickie and Babe from ever
feeling like a dry documentary, nor does the play ever descend into docudrama
territory. With the aid of Roy Rede’s simple but effective set design, one scene
segueways quickly into another, four wooden chairs on rollers being moved this
way and that to become a car, a canoe, a bed, etc. Dana Peterson has
costumed the two dozen plus characters in ways which allow the upstage
seated actors to transform themselves into someone new with just an added
jacket or hat. Dave Mickey’s sound and lighting are outstanding.  1920s
recordings set the play in a clear time frame, and a recording of Gershwin’s
Rhapsody in Blue made within a fortnight of the killing provides a powerful
backdrop to much of the 2nd act action.  Rick Baumgartner and Mickey did the
projection and media design, which specifies the setting of each scene with
dozens of hand-colored postcards and black and white photos accumulated by
Henning during his lengthy research.

In the end, even though we may not forgive Dickie and Babe for what they did,
Henning’s fully polished play allows us to understand them and see their
humanity.  This is never more true than in a deeply moving moment near the end
of the play when Niven, with quietly felt emotion, speaks from a previously
unknown letter (written by Dickie in pencil and discovered by Henning during his
exhaustive research).

Dickie and Babe: The Truth About Leopold & Loeb is must-see theater, as is Thrill
Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story.  Just as Thrill Me’s original cast recording allows
audiences to appreciate the show’s score in their own homes, hopefully
Henning’s play will soon appear in published form. As truly theatrical an
experience as it is, the play deserves to be read as well, and to become part of
the literature written about Leopold and Loeb. In the meantime, audiences can
thrill to the experience of seeing it performed live, in this superbly directed and
acted production.

The Blank’s 2nd Stage Theatre, 6500 Santa Monica Boulevard, Hollywood.
www.TheBlank.com

–Steven Stanley
Feburary 14, 2008
Photos: Rick Baumgartner

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