Empty Souls

Never the Sinner: The Leopold and Loeb Story.

The reporters, played by Lisa Morgan and Robert Maxwell, are at times subdued and at other times wildly declarative and melodramatic. Their heightened descriptions of the two killers provide an excellent portrayal of the cub and veteran reporter, keeping the audience historically grounded in a time when people sat around radios to get information about their city and their world.

The play's use of sound also reinforces this time period. Clips of music and other news occurring at the time keep us tethered in the '20s, and the use of sound effects helps the minimalist stage design carry us from the courtroom, to the car where Bobby was killed, to the marsh where the body was dumped. The sound technology expands the stage, creates transitions that are not only fluid but also high-energy, heightening the building dramatic tension of the trial.

And the setting doesn't distract from the compelling performances. The stage is bare with a black floor, two benches and two tables (one of each on either side of the stage), and a couple of chairs on stage left for the reporters. Nothing is more effective than a simple piece of furniture when the acting surrounding it is strong. A simple bench becomes seating in a car, a jail, a park, and a prison yard. The setting complements the acting and drama instead of distracting the audience or obstructing the view.

Paul Tei (left) and Christopher Carlisle take on the sins of the killers
Paul Tei (left) and Christopher Carlisle take on the sins of the killers

All of the actors show incredible stamina and energy (they are all on the stage the entire time), and Morgan and Maxwell show seemingly effortless versatility: Morgan as a reporter, a psychiatrist, and Germaine, the girlfriend of Loeb; Maxwell as a reporter, a psychiatrist, and a detective.

As in any trial, the antagonism between the prosecution and defense is as crucial to the success of the drama as the principles for which they are fighting. Robert Crowe, played by Wayne Robinson, is the slick, young, cutthroat prosecution attorney. Robinson sometimes comes off a little more like a used-car salesman than a clever yet wily lawyer. Barnett's Clarence Darrow is the older, seasoned, battle-worn defense attorney. Although both actors bring a lot of energy to their characters and the antagonism between prosecution and defense is strong, a more interesting and more convincing dynamic could have been achieved between the two by making their antagonism more subtle.

Darrow's final monologue seems a bit over the top. It is as though, in his previous statement, he has crescendoed, and there's nowhere else to go.

Never the Sinner ends appropriately at the beginning. We see Leopold and Loeb where they first met -- at a university party. They're the superior outcasts: two wealthy young men, two riddles. The play begins where it ends -- not offering any explanation or even any theory, but the trip is psychologically compelling and dramatically moving.

Never the Sinner: The Leopold and Loeb Story. Written by John Logan. Directed by Rafael de Acha. Starring Christopher Carlisle, Paul Tei, John Barnett, Wayne Robinson, Lisa Morgan, and Robert Maxwell. Through June 11. New Theatre, 65 Almeria Ave., Coral Gables, 305-443-5909.

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