Reaction Paper: UF – Never The Sinner by John Logan / Directed by Ralf Remshardt
Author John Logan did a smart thing with Never the Sinner. He took a notoriously reprehensible crime and made it funny. Otherwise, this might be the worst date play in history. “Hey honey, would you like to see a show tonight about a gay couple that brutally murders a boy? It’s a trial play, and everybody dies.” Under the genius direction of Ralf Remshardt, it’s not only funny at times, it’s also noir and shown off like a 1930s musical—not that it’s a musical, but it feels like one. The classic convention of three chorus girls who sing the narrative along—think Little Shop of Horrors—here we have Stefanie Anarumo, Melissa Nave, and Shari Thompson. When they’re not playing their alternative characters, they are providing exposition in this similar vane, like a Greek chorus of roarin' 1920s flappers. Only they don’t sing, but it feels like they do. To bring dark comic elements to troubling material has often been a successful venture. Stanley Kubrick was twice successful laughing up the pain with Lolita (Taboo Obsession) and Dr. Strangelove (Armageddon.) Theatrical examples include Angels in America (AIDS), God of Carnage (Civility), and the uproariously hilarious Merchant of Venice—Shakespeare’s “Tragicomedy”. Tragicomedy, as it is generally defined in relationship to Shakespeare Is typically about lovers. Never The Sinner is a love story.
As Leopold and Loeb, Laine Nelson and Kevin Roost are freakin’ outstanding. There is no other way to describe their performance, (the operative “freakin’” being the only adequate word in the English language.) Their chemistry leading up to the inevitable gay ‘shock kiss’ (which the audience is both surprised by but was also waiting for’) is completely believable and fully realized. If a play could be said to have three climaxes, this was one of them (the other two: The Murder and the Verdict—although arguably the Verdict is the resolution, but it’s very climactic.) The complexity of their motive, the compulsion of love/lust, the weight of their circumstances comes through in the tones and facial/body work. Leopold and Loeb truly live again in the bodies and minds of these two young actors. And although Roost seems at first glance to be the stronger actor of the two, we realize after that this effect is entirely natural; Loeb was the dominant, the instigator, the de-facto murderer. Nelson plays more subtle, tortured, and complex. When he thinks about the murder, he is capable of smiling, and with that smile, showing sadness. And when the two of them are in a vehicle which we see with our own eyes (four common house-chairs) and the murder takes place, we cringe! We turn away! There is no car, there is no victim, nevertheless, there they are and we cringe. It’s gruesome effective mime. And then, Act II, the trial. Our two attorneys: for the defense, Clarence Darrow (the excellent Rob Cope); for the prosecution, Robert Crowe (Tom Foley channeling Vincent Bugliosi-meets-Perry Mason’s Hamilton Burger). The actor’s eye notes the extreme contrast between these two men, one the confident laid back ‘I got this!’ attorney and the other, the goal hungry press-happy ‘You got nothin!’. These actors use their bodies and voices to show us these differing traits. It truly is a second act because the subtext of the love story and crime is the story of Clarence Darrow and his passionate pitch to spare the lives of the young killers. In Law circles, this summation (over 12 hours in the actual event) is considered one of the most eloquent defenses ever made in the history of law, and that the two boys—gay as they were in the context of 1930s Chicago morality—got life instead of death. [More comedy: despite the historical verdict represented in the play, the audience can text whether the boys live or die from their smartphones and the result is displayed at the conclusion.]
The set is minimalist. In a line upstage on the floor, every prop in the play is set out in advance and visible to the audience; a clever way to immediately build suspense. What is that and when will it be used and what will it be used for? And the rest of the set is mostly chairs. The actors function like a finely tuned machine with this flexible set. During the ‘dim-outs’ between units, we are able to see the actors arrange the chairs one way and another; now we have a car, now we are in a court room, now a library, then a baseball park, a movie theatre, classroom, all suggested by chairs and the focus and atmosphere set by the actors. Projections of 1930s art styles and shape-animations suggestive of the scales of balance neither hurt nor particularly helped the play, save to offer a sense of style. At times, they were distracting. Lighting in this production was outstanding and cut great stage pictures out of the actors—very Wellesian with long shadows and chiaroscuro—particularly affecting during the murder.
Costumes (Lisa Eash) were period-proper and helped to establish both the color of the characters and the sense of place. In particular, they helped set the contrast for both the attorneys (one suit ruffled up and one sharp and tailored tight) and the boys (one suit flamboyant and fey, the other masculine and slick). Sound (Dalton Hamilton) was uniformly excellent with great period Jazz keeping the dark material ‘up’ and palatable—also delivering a sense of time/place/culture.
Remshardt’s direction is genius. There is always something eye-catching happening on stage. Every move comes with a reason and the actors function like a precision drill team with the physical demands of arranging the flexable set, and (in the case of the ladies) the multi-characters each of them play. At the beginning of this performance, the protagonists do a high-five. If there is any fault to be found in the play, this was it. The high-five comes into fashion in the 1970s so unless the Director was offering, by way of metaphor, a subtext of ‘this is as relevant today as it was then’, its presence was punctually jarring. All in all, this play was as good as any off-Broadway at its finest. Leave the high-five for the audience.