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Never the Sinner

Yet another trial of the century

By Vladimir Zelevinsky

Lyric Stage Company, 140 Clarendon St., Boston

Written by John Logan

Directed by Spiro Veloudos

With John Kuntz, Bill Mootos, Bill Humpreys, Dale Place

More information available at 617-437-7172

Through 4/18

Without even exerting one’s mind, it’s easy to list at least half a dozen “trials of the century,” running all the way from Ragtime’s shooting of architect Stamford White to, well, you know what. Each of them seem to exist at a nexus of multiple conflicts, money versus fame versus guilt versus whatever might be the current hot topic in the societal consciousness.

The Leopold & Loeb trial (Chicago, 1924) was certainly one of them. Two rich young men, from affluent families, plot a perfect crime. They kidnap and brutally kill a little boy, without really any reason to do so. They make an idiotic mistake and are caught and promptly charged with murder. They are defended by none other than famous Clarence Darrow, who would later go on to defend schoolteacher Spokes in the notorious “Bible vs. Darwin” case. The case is a tangle of issues. There’s the fact that Darrow knew of his clients’ guilt, and still defended them, being a staunch opponent of the death penalty. There’s the mystery of why two handsome and rich men went for a base crime. There’s a homosexual romance between the two. There’s a curious involvement of popular philosophy, most significantly Nietsche. And, of course, there’s the clash of characters, driven state prosecutor Robert Crowe versus Darrow versus his clients.

There are many directions one can take this play. One can go for a riveting courtroom drama; or maybe a twisted romance; or, perhaps, for a harrowing character study; or for a period piece, using the 1924 milieu as a separate characters; or, ultimately, as a somber look at the sources of fascism, with Leopold & Loeb attempting to achieve the status of Nietschean supermen by the means of murder.

And the play, shockingly, amazingly, unbelievably, misses every single one of these opportunities, squandering dramatic actions, character insight, and even the simple story in favor of, oh, I don’t know what. It comes as no surprise that the playwright John Logan has another career as a Hollywood screenwriter (with the yet unproduced Conquistador, Any Given Sunday, Mission: Impossible II to his credit). His play operates in the way most Hollywood blockbusters do, with the scenes being so short and switching so rapidly, that one is readily reminded of the MTV-style editing.

At its best, this is distracting; at its worst, infuriating, when the play rapidly switches gears just when it could have stayed with the scene for at least another minute and maybe gain a moment of insight. As a result, Never the Sinner reminded me of a hamster on its little spinning wheel: there’s an amazing flurry of activity, with rapidly moving limbs all akimbo, and you know it’s working very hard, and moving very fast Ñ but moving very much nowhere, and its gets highly annoying very soon.

First act is mostly disappointing, with only one thing really happening: the murder itself, a graphically disturbing scene. Everything else is lost in a flurry of two-minute scenes. Second act, picks some things up, by at least hearkening to the Playwrighting 101 class and creating some kind of dramatic conflict, between the attorney Darrow and state prosecutor Crowe. These scenes have some zing to them; but by this time, it’s too little, too late, and the second act generally feels soporific.

I can’t even imagine how bad Never the Sinner would feel if it were poorly staged. At least, the Lyric Stage production works extra-hard to make the audience ignore the play’s faults. Both the direction and acting are just right, interesting enough but not too much so as to distract from the other aspects of the productions. Most impressive are the lighting design (which evocatively creates the mood of many changing setting which are all done without any changes in the set) and sound design. The latter is very interesting, with such effects as the seamless fade of period music from the house speakers to the small radio on the set.

Too bad, really; such a story (true, as most great stories are) would merit a better stage version. What Never the Sinner is most memorable for, is its spectacular squandering of opportunities.