In 2017, the deadliest shooting in U.S. history was committed by one person operating semi-automatic weapons, but 100 years ago, the "crime of the century" was committed by two promising university students wielding a chisel. The bizarre story of Nathan Leopold (John Fitzpatrick) and Richard Loeb (Eli Timm), two wealthy friends from Chicago who kidnapped, ransomed and murdered a teenage acquaintance in 1924, remains chilling for its cold-blooded senselessness.
Dramatized by See 'Em On Stage and directed by Christopher Bentivegna at the AllWays Theatre, Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story by Stephen Dolginoff, is told from the perspective of Leopold, who tells police he went along with the crime because he would do whatever his friend asked. At a parole hearing 34 years later, Leopold still feels justified for his actions.
The intense, two-person musical is performed a few feet from the audience, which is seated onstage. Keyboardist Ainsley Matich's mesmerizing accompaniment intensifies the drama. It is odd to hear accused killers glamorizing murderous acts, though their grisly story is engrossing. Being in such close proximity to the actors psychologically draws the audience into the lovers' off-kilter, codependent relationship. A genius, Leopold, is irresistibly attracted to the charismatic Loeb, who toys with his affections, bargaining sexual favors so Leopold will partake in his misadventures. The pair waltz, showing the dangerous dance they are beginning.
The performance falls short on sexual sizzle, which would go a long way in explaining the overwhelming power Loeb holds over Leopold. Loeb is cruel and takes advantage of Leopold, who seems emotionally needy, but more like a fraternity pledge obliging a brother than a partner. The two brilliant minds seem to intellectualize the murder as if it is a game they are playing or a detective novel they are acting out. Crime soon becomes the essence of their relationship.
Loeb loves the excitement and ego boost he gets from outsmarting police. In an era before the use of DNA evidence, the pair avoids suspicion merely by eliminating physical evidence.
Their collaboration starts with "silly" crimes, such as robbing a fraternity house and setting fire to a high school office. After studying the nihilistic philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, Loeb believes himself to be a superior human being whose intellect places him above the law. He is inspired to commit the "perfect crime." Murder is the "logical progression" to get the sensational newspaper headlines he craves. Leopold and Loeb choose to abduct a 14-year-old boy whose father is wealthy enough to pay their ransom, and they lure the teen into their roadster.
As in any crime story, there are plot twists, shifting blame and, in this case, a trial with the accused defended by legendary attorney Clarence Darrow. Thrill Me is an intellectual drama that asks us to consider how an act of violence can become depersonalized.