Metro Weekly

Criminal Intent

ATW's 'Never the Sinner' features stellar performances that battle against distracting, overly-creative staging

In 1924, Nathan ”Babe” Leopold Jr. and Richard ”Dickie” Loeb were sentenced to life plus 99 years for the murder of 14-year-old Bobby Franks. The two kidnapped the boy on his way home from the schoolyard, bludgeoned him to death and dumped his body in a culvert. The case may have gone unsolved had Leopold’s glasses, which he dropped when disposing of the body, not been discovered.

The case had everything it needed to become a media sensation. The accused killers were young, overprivileged members of Chicago’s social elite. Loeb was good-looking. Leopold was brilliant. The killing itself was brutal and seemingly committed without remorse or motivation. There was even a high-profile attorney involved, the great Clarence Darrow.

These elements should also make for an evening of fascinating, albeit disturbing, theater. Sadly, this is not the case with the Actors’ Theatre of Washington’s production of Never the Sinner. It’s no fault of the actors, whose excellent work is overwhelmed and overshadowed by the creative play of director Jeffrey Johnson.

Forbearance required: Ivey and Brack
(Photo by Ray Gniewek)

There is always the desire to reward the artists who takes chances, to congratulate them for taking a risk even when things do not fully come together. In this instance, however, the chances Johnson has taken are at the expense of the overall production. The multimedia elements he employs are often distracting and take attention away from the performers. The design of the stage and blocking of the show turns the audience into a human obstacle course. And the decision to significantly alter the number of actors from the show’s original conception reduces some of Sinner‘s dialogue into confusing gibberish.

All of this is unfortunate because Johnson has placed such wonderful talent on the stage. Ashley Ivey, who recently performed in ATW’s The Ruffian on the Stair, brilliantly shrinks into the role of the shy and studious Leopold. His portrayal is nicely complemented by Joe Brack as Loeb. Where Ivey’s Leopold is tight and angular, Brack’s Loeb is a wealth of broad gestures, languid poses and smiles meant to stop hearts and traffic.

What’s most rewarding about the pair’s performance is the chemistry they share. Ivey and Brack melt comfortably together with a familiarity that is absolutely convincing. There is warmth in the way Brack throws his arm around Ivey’s shoulder, a quality to the gazes they share. Far more than communicating a pulse of sexuality between Leopold and Loeb, Brack and Ivey have created a relationship that is as tender as it is desperate in nature.

John C. Bailey plays, well, everyone else. In his director’s notes, Johnson explains that he made the decision to pare the eight-person cast down to three actors to put all focus on the relationship between Leopold and Loeb. An interesting idea, in theory. In practice, it falls short — and some of the blame must be put on the decision to have Bailey perform largely amongst the audience.

Most of the time, Ivey and Brack remain in the center, securely orbiting a single table placed behind a raised curve of bare light bulbs reminiscent of the center ring of a circus. Bailey must move in and out of the audience (which circles the stage area on three sides) through aisles so narrow that those in the front row must move their legs to avoid tripping the actor. It’s quite distracting, particularly in the Source Theater’s intimate space.

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But Bailey must be given credit for his performance. His portrayal of Clarence Darrow, clearly the character whose skin the actor felt most comfortable in, is confident and seemingly effortless. His weak portrayal of one of Loeb’s girlfriends, on the other hand, seems a perfect example of why the show was originally written for eight actors.

In the end, there is probably enough good work going on in ATW’s Never the Sinner to warrant a trip to the theater. Bear in mind, however, that it may be an evening requiring more patience than some of you will be willing to invest.