EmptyThe Blank's 2nd Stage Theatre, Los Angeles
Through March 16
For his debut as a playwright, Daniel Henning's remarkably cheery take on the schizophrenic team of Babe Leopold and Dickie Loeb -- "Dickie & Babe: The Truth About Leopold & Loeb" -- shares little in common with "Thrill Me," the moody little musical treatment of the same story playing two blocks down the street at the Hudson Theatre.
In both cases, however, they so utterly marginalize the killing and the death of little Bobby Franks that you can easily slip into the divorced-from-reality mind-set of the murderers. Also in each, there is no escaping the profoundly nightmarish nature of the struggles the men go through to deny self-knowledge of their terrible dark sides.
But everything else about the two plays is different, starting with the size of the brilliant cast of eight, a rock-solid yet cleverly used and smoothly versatile set by Roy Rede and an expansive running time of nearly three hours.
The length is no handicap to Henning. The rush of energy with which each of the two acts begins leads to a series of rapid-fire sequences alternating with occasional longer scenes, all drenched in as much atmosphere of the roaring '20s as the production can afford, including raccoon coats; contemporary photos and postcards projected on a screen; music to fit the time and mood (including the wailing clarinet of "Rhapsody in Blue" just when it is most needed); and a succession of brief character sketches that delight the audience, most particularly the work of Vicki Lewis as Leopold's Jewish mother and as a working girl named Patches.
Henning's language, whether invented or taken from the court transcripts, has a vitality and glee about it that matches the unreflective nature of the killers and the high, optimistic spirits of the times, but it is Henning's superb structuring of events that makes each new development more gripping than the last. Even at the end, the audience would have been willing to go on.
As the murderous pair, Aaron Himelstein, as the sexually obsessed and repressed Leopold, and Nick Niven, as the beautiful boy toy obsessed with joy, give a pair of classic performances.
Sporting professional names so apt that they couldn't have been invented, the pair dance in the flame of their death-defying brush with fame using charm (Niven, with a grin so hard and full of shining teeth that it could crack walnuts); bookish dignity (Himelstein's soliloquy over Loeb's dead body like Fortinbras' praise over Hamlet's body); and, each in their own way, edgy, tentative, hedonistic glee.
Despite their excellence, they don't really connect much, aside from the occasional kiss and an extremely moving moment of reverie, when Himelstein lies down on a table and, as if he were under one of van Gogh's starry skies, talks about the happiness he feels.
In fact, Charlie Schlatter's report to the court on the pair's sexual adventures carries more passion and thrills than anything seen onstage. Obviously, there is only so much identification with these two that even a risk-taking small theater production can portray without asking the actors to engage in explicit sex. But without a better approximation of Leopold's sexual ecstasy, their relationship remains more talked about than felt.
So, if you're willing to whistle a happy tune and don't mind a few moments of mild violence, Henning's tour de force, with its elements of "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" and "The Rake's Progress," provides a lot of entertainment value for the buck.
DICKIE & BABE: THE TRUTH ABOUT LEOPOLD & LOEB
Presented by the Blank Theatre Company
Playwright-director: Daniel Henning
Producers: Serene Bynum, Stacy Reed, Noah Wyle
Set designer: Roy Rede
Costume designer: Dana Peterson
Lighting/sound designer: Dave Mickey
Hair/makeup designer: Judi Lewin
Projection media designers: Rick Baumgartner, Davie Mickey
Casting consultant: April Webster
Babe: Aaron Himelstein
Dickie: Nick Niven
Florence Leopold, others: Vicki Lewis
Clarence Darrow, others: Weston Blakesley
Alvin Goldstein, others: Charlie Schlatter
Robert Crowe, others: Michael Urie
Hamlin Buchman, others: J. Richey Nash
Tommy Loeb, others: Caye Clark