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The plot thickens

Daniel Henning takes care to make the notorious Leopold & Loeb case his own.

January 27, 2008|David Ng | Times Staff Writer

On a mostly bare stage, two actors are rehearsing the perfect murder. One of them mimes driving an automobile while the other searches for a young victim to lure into the back seat. The year is 1924. Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb are about to make history as the country's most famous thrill killers.

During the rehearsal, the director and playwright, Daniel Henning, looks over the actors' shoulders, choreographing their eye movements at each turn. Playing in the background is George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue." Henning wanted to give the scene a Roaring '20s ambience, and he found a recording dating from the same year as the killing.

"This particular version was released two weeks after the murder, so we're cheating a little," he says during a break.

It's a small cheat, one that audiences probably won't notice. But that doesn't stop Henning from sweating the details. His near-obsessive attention to historical accuracy is the driving force behind his docudrama "Dickie and Babe," which premieres Saturday at the Blank Theatre Company's 2nd Stage Theatre in Hollywood.

Henning founded the small company 18 years ago and has turned it into one of Los Angeles' most respected theater organizations. For his first foray into playwriting, he has set an ambitious if strangely academic goal for himself -- to tell the Leopold and Loeb story as objectively as possible, minimizing conjecture and dramatic embellishment.

For the murder scene, he visited the Chicago neighborhood where the killers lived and retraced their path so he could later re-create their movements on stage.

"Maybe I'm the only person who'll understand all of the nuances," Henning, 42, says at his home in Silver Lake. "There's something about knowing that what you're seeing actually happened. I think people will be fascinated by that, even if they've heard the story a hundred times before."

For those who haven't: Nathan "Babe" Leopold (Aaron Himelstein) was a shy, brainy student at the University of Chicago when he met Richard "Dickie" Loeb (Nick Niven), an outgoing and flawlessly handsome classmate. They quickly became friends and eventually lovers.

On May 21, 1924, they kidnapped and murdered a 14-year-old boy named Bobby Franks. During the trial, the killers showed no remorse for their motiveless crime. They received life sentences each, narrowly escaping the death penalty thanks to their lawyer, Clarence Darrow.

For three years, Henning immersed himself in court transcripts, medical reports, letters and other documents. Each scene in "Dickie and Babe" is based on one or more of those sources, he says. Many feature dialogue pulled verbatim from historical records, though Henning had to invent dialogue for some of the more private conversations.

"My rule was that their words will always be better than my words," he explains. "I wanted to give the characters the chance to speak for themselves as much as possible."

As homework for the actors, Henning selected Jack London's homoerotic novel "The Sea Wolf," which Leopold and Loeb often read to each other. On stage, the actors use an actual 1917 copy of the book.

He also assigned Samuel Hopkins Adams' "Flaming Youth," a tale of sexual freedom during the '20s, as required reading for the supporting cast, which includes TV veterans Michael Urie ("Ugly Betty"), Vicki Lewis and Charlie Schlatter.

At a recent rehearsal, one cast member complained that the novel was "kind of boring." Henning broke his usual upbeat demeanor and tersely replied, "Well, read it!"

"Dickie and Babe" is so steeped in encyclopedic arcana that it risks feeling clinical and esoteric at times. Henning is betting that the information overload will provide the breadth for audiences to draw their own conclusions about the killers' psychology.

"I'm not trying to force an opinion on the audience," he explains. "There are no easy answers for why they did it. Each detail adds up to make a complicated truth."

Playwrights have traditionally taken enormous liberties with the Leopold and Loeb case. Some of them say the killers' fundamental inscrutability almost invites reinterpretation.

Meyer Levin's "Compulsion" (1957) changed the names of the killers and created composite characters, while Patrick Hamilton's "Rope" (1929) set the action in London and concocted a radically different plot line. (Hamilton always denied that his play, the basis for Alfred Hitchcock's 1948 film, was based on the case.)

Stephen Dolginoff's 2005 musical "Thrill Me" is playing at Hudson Backstage in Hollywood, just two blocks away from the Blank. This compact two-hander sets the Leopold and Loeb story to a brooding piano score and features a twist ending that the author invented.

"I created my personal version of the story," says Dolginoff, speaking from his home in New York. "It's not a docudrama or a biography. It's a musical thriller. I think it's a story that can be told a million different ways."

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