Arts & Leisure

Complex motives are explored in “Sinner”

“NEVER THE SINNER” at Golden West College’s Mainstage Theater stars Matthew Cobb and Alex Jean (GWC photo).

By Thom deMartino

As one who has slain his fellow man, society demands that it tear from you your delusions, judging you as not a superman — but a psychopath. But is it truly as simple as that?

A promising new season has begun at Golden West College’s Mainstage Theater in Huntington Beach, beginning with the harrowing true crime tale, “Never the Sinner.”  Based of the real-life events dubbed “the crime of the century”, “Sinner” is the story of a pair of wealthy young college men, Nathan Leopold (Matthew Cobb) and Richard Loeb (Alex Jean) in 1920’s Chicago: who, as kindred spirits, consider themselves “ubermench” — the “supermen” written of by the philosopher Nietzsche — superior to, and therefore not bound by, the average morals and limitations of the masses. The duo decide to plan and commit the “perfect” crime… one that proves to be a ghastly murder.

The story begins with the media hungrily covering the opening of the trial that will determine the fate of the two, for their thrill-killing of young Bobby Franks – Loeb’s own 14-year-old cousin. District Attorney Crowe (Matt Koutroulis) frames the monstrosity of their actions, and passionately argues that the only way true justice will be served is through the execution of the pair, while lauded defense attorney Clarence Darrow (Scott Keister) insists that yes, their actions were abominable, but – without excusing the atrocity — can we understand why? Was it something inborn, something in their nature, or their nurture?

The play seamlessly weaves events into one smoothly flowing narrative: the trial, the quirks and complex relationship of the two, leading up to the murder (such as Loeb’s long-suffering girlfriend Miss Reinhart and Leopold’s insistence that his friend call him “babe”), and the two maintaining their condescending attitudes and dispassionate view of their act — even as the slightest, most hesitant hint of doubt begins to creep into their minds about what “superior” purpose their actions truly served.

“Never the Sinner” leaves the viewers with many challenging questions: is evil learned, or inborn? Does spilling blood in the name of justice truly mean justice, or is it only rationalization for society’s own bloodlust and thirst for revenge? And how culpable is the media in all of this, with its sensationalizing of the killing and the trial, for its own profit? (In a dark twist, one newspaper outlet even holds a raffle for its readers to win a chance to view the proceedings.)

The timing and pacing of the show is almost balletic, as the actors glide across the sparsely arranged stage, in a somber flow of movement (at one point, the murderous duo circle each other closely, faster and faster: in something less a dance, and instead more like the orbiting of a pair of dark binary stars, spinning closer and closer inward towards their mutual destruction.) Ghostly images of the real-life Leopold and Loeb, newspaper headlines, and documents from the trial are projected in the background, fading in and out of view, reminding the audience of the authenticity of the terrible and tragic events.

The pair of attorneys have colorful and revealing interactions and exchanges: Koutroulis is passionate as Crowe, the dogged prosecutor, fully committed and driven to give the people of his city the justice that they demand, and the blood that the masses are baying for; Keister is moving, folksy and persuasive as Darrow, trying to determine what the true justice here should be, as he attempts to understand what moved his clients to such a heinous act — and, if not insane, how responsible they should be for their own actions.

But the dark, shining stars of the show are truly Cobb and Jean themselves, as Leopold and Loeb: with a chemistry and magnetism between the pair that is as undeniable as their actions are monsterous — and the complicated relationship the two have never appears to wane through the trial, as each seems to somehow enhance and complete the other.

Jean’s Loeb is maddeningly charming and self-assured, save for his ever-so-few quiet, fleetingly vulnerable moments; and Cobb’s Leopold is at times deceptively low-key and droll, while at others he seems as dominant and predatory as some of the birds of prey he studies — and compares himself and his partner to.

“Never the Sinner” is as much a study of human nature as it is of the minds of a pair of killers: go in expecting a true-crime tale, and exit pondering humanity’s relationship to death, mind, and what true justice really means.

“Never the Sinner.” Matthew Cobb, Alex Jean and Scott Keister star in the real-life tale of two killers in 1920’s Chicago, and the larger questions of humanity underlying their trial. Final show was Sunday, Oct.15 at at the Golden West College Mainstage Theater.

 

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