Dickie & Babe
For his first venture as a playwright, the Blank’s prolific artistic director Daniel Henning chose a difficult—albeit captivating—subject. With the world premiere of his theatrical docudrama Dickie & Babe: The Truth About Leopold & Loeb, Henning makes a noteworthy debut as a writer and, even though his introductory effort is still a tad bumpy in places, it’s certainly a significant first pass.
This is a tale well known to me personally, having been raised in Chicago in the shadow of the loaming, grandly gothic homes of Richard “Dickie” Loeb and his victim Bobby Franks, which stood across from one another on South Ellis Avenue. The murder of Franks was something everyone still whispered about on the way to school when I was growing up, as thirtysomething years after the deed, the Franks’ family home remained something of a neighborhood scandal to the adults and a ghost house to the kids, one stealthily bypassed on Halloween night by even the bravest souls.
The discussion of this case was also a tender subject at home if one was Jewish, as Dickie Loeb and Nathan “Babe” Leopold’s actions forever changed how Jews were perceived in American society and caused many good acts to be ignored in favor of a blanket idea of what morally deficient monsters we all were. Of course, the fact that the weasely-looking Babe Leopold, a nerdy little guy with an IQ of 210, paraphrased Nietzsche by publicly stating he and Dickie were “superior men” and as such were governed only by their own rules, didn’t do much to help the cause either.
Henning spent two years researching this first of many crimes of the last century referred to by the ever-greedy press as The Crime of the Century. In 1924, Dickie Loeb and Babe Leopold, super-intelligent, super-wealthy teenagers referred to by their prosecuting attorney as “products of money, moderation and higher education,” murdered Loeb’s 14-year-old cousin and Ellis Avenue neighbor solely for the thrill of committing the perfect crime. Henning felt the details of the murder and the gaudy media circus of a trial that followed had been shrouded for years in speculation and fantasy, so he set out to explore the truth behind the mystery. Traveling to Chicago and Washington, DC, he poured over police interrogation and court records, as well as medical reports and the personal correspondence of many of those involved.
In a note to the press included in the Blank’s Dickie & Babe presskit, Henning writes: “I will never forget standing in the National Archives holding in my hands an unpublished letter written in pencil from Dickie Loeb that no one knew existed. I started shaking. And when I read the letter, I cried. The letter is Dickie’s final speech in the play. It makes its world premiere in Dickie & Babe.”
Loeb’s letter to his lawyer, the infamous Clarence Darrow, is indeed touching, one of the first shots at showing the misguided, bored 19-year-old sociopath had a heart in there somewhere, and there are other firsts here too, including a scene between Loeb and States Attorney Robert Crowe (played with deliciously creepy calm by Ugly Betty star Michael Urie), where the language used to flesh out the kid’s “deviant” sexual perversions included words I didn’t know existed back in 1924.
This and much of the dialogue running throughout Henning’s play was lifted directly from courtroom transcripts, including an impassioned and historically tearful final summation by Darrow (beautifully rendered by Weston Blakesley), and the lurid testimony of Dr. William Healy (Charlie Schlatter), which was ordered by the judge to be whispered in court so the public and reporters present at the sensational trial could not hear the sexually explicit details. Considering the general consensus from that time forward assumed the murder had been a sex crime, when actually only details of Dickie and Babe’s own longtime master-slave sexual relationship had been revealed, the inclusion of Healy’s statements makes the debut of Dickie & Babe even more auspicious.
There’s no doubt Henning’s first play is fascinating and a monumental personal accomplishment. Beyond that, his staging on the Blank’s tiny playing space is remarkably inventive, with the supporting cast placed on chairs at the back of the stage where they watch the interplay between Dickie Loeb and Babe Leopold (Nick Niven and Aaron Himelstein) and change into various costuming periodically to assume multiple roles. The design elements are all sharply in place, although the sound design by Dave Mickey, featuring a wonderful selection of authentic 1920s music piped in throughout Act One (then silenced in Act Two when the boys’ trial begins to unfold), is both too loud and too arbitrary to suit the action of the play.
All the right bells and whistles are here, but what’s missing is a believable connection and sense of real feelings between Himelstein and Niven, something exacerbated by the two fine young actors’ totally opposite acting styles. In Himelstein’s first riveting moments, he quickly proves himself to be a master of muted understatement, while the widely-grinning Niven enters the scene as though cast as Professor Harold Hill in a high school mounting of The Music Man. Where Himelstein’s dialogue is delivered as film-set quiet, Niven in turn shouts his every line as though playing to 3,000 seats in an outdoor amphitheatre.
This isn’t saying Niven isn’t clearly gifted, nor was Dickie Loeb an introverted shrinking violet, by any means. But we get that early, which should give Niven, presumably under the guidance of Henning, more than enough time and opportunity to go deeper as the story progresses. In contrast, Babe’s scarily submissive adoration of Dickie is hauntingly conveyed by Himelstein who, at one point, as the two inseparable friends sit close together downstage, wordlessly stares at Niven’s lips as his unaware nemesis conjures their twisted plans. Himelstein’s simple stare is fixated with such a palpable lust that one can almost understand what made Leopold go along with the pair’s senseless murder plot. That this actor can accomplish so much emotionally in his creation of Babe Leopold while his costar offers only a distractingly indulgent one-man show for him to work opposite, is a testament to Himelstein’s exceptional talent and considerable powers of concentration.
Yet all is not lost—or shouldn’t be. Niven’s culminating speech to the audience, as he “reads” Dickie’s sad letter to Darrow mentioned earlier, shows what this eager young fledgling could accomplish when he settles down and really communicates, as opposed to performs, onstage. Aside from being strikingly attractive and obviously charismatic, there’s no doubt Niven has strong instincts as an actor and intellectually understands this material. When he gets a little seasoning under his belt, when he stops working so hard to show us what Dickie is feeling and learns to trust his instincts, he might just have a noble career ahead of him.
Ultimately, the real blame must fall on the shoulders of the playwright’s own direction. In this premiere production of Dickie & Babe, what’s desperately needed is a director with time to focus on creating a better balance and more realistic relationship between the two actors he’s cast in such demanding pivotal roles. As playwright, producer, and artistic director of the Blank, maybe the usually impressively overachieving Daniel Henning should have this time out turned over the directorial reigns of his first child to someone able to bring a fresh and concentrated eye to the proceedings. The glaring distraction between Himelstein’s emotively simple antihero and Niven’s razzle-dazzle uppercrust huckster takes a chunk out of what could be a mesmerizing first production of a wonderful new play, one deserving a definite future beyond the Blank’s 49 seats regardless of its youthful flaws.
Dickie & Babe: The Truth About Leopold & Loeb plays through Mar. 16 at the Blank’s 2nd Stage Theatre, 6500 Santa Monica Bl., Hollywood; for tickets, call 323.661.9827. For more information, visit www.theblank.com