Theatre Review: Thrill Me is a Rollercoaster of Dark Delight
Edward Carignan followed up his triumphant direction of the expansive, glitzy but melancholy musical A Chorus Line with a darker, more intimate work in Short North Stage’s Green Room, Thrill Me by Stephen Dolginoff. Dolginoff’s (book, music and lyrics) musical tells the famous story of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb – wealthy, bored young lovers attending the University of Chicago who kidnapped and murdered a 14 year old boy in 1924 in what was called the “crime of the century”.
Thrill Me uses the device of looking back from Leopold’s (Luke Stewart) final, successful parole hearing in 1958, played from a reel to reel tape recorder. Aside from the disembodied, questioning voice of the law, appearing in transitions, everything is told in the voices of Leopold and Loeb (Evin Hoffman). The device of having only these two characters on one, unchanging, set with a bare bed, a tiny desk with an Underwood typewriter, one chair, and a wall covered in newspaper clippings and bits of evidence, gives everything a hermetic, claustrophobic tint.
What Thrill Me – and especially Carignan’s production – does beautifully is establish a world for these two men where no one and nothing else is quite real and it investigates why. Very early we see Leopold’s dangerous obsession with Loeb. Unwilling to relinquish their High School world of early love, sex, and intoxication, despite Leopold’s vaunted intelligence he hasn’t progressed from that unbalanced adolescence. He grills Loeb about where he’s been, who else he’s slept with, and ultimately, why Richard Loeb doesn’t reciprocate his love’s intensity in “Why” and “Everybody Wants Richard”. By the end of these early songs, the snowball of the play’s horrifying events begins to roll and it not only makes sense but seems inevitable that Leopold would follow Loeb into any fire.
Just as early we see Loeb’s calculating persona, his charm, and his obsession with being “a superior being” given voice and shape by the writing of Nietzsche. It’s all a typical bright but undersocialized boy’s fantasy given a horrifying weight through the intersection of sociopathy, massive intellect and, sadly, a willing partner whose love is there for the using. Evin Hoffman’s Loeb is a virtuosic performance, intensely physical and simultaneously calculatedly disconnected. He sells the infectious melody of these songs with multiple emotions and motivations playing against each other like notes on a violin. As Leopold talks him out of the original victim, Loeb’s brother John and his target shifts, Hoffman beautifully plays an impulsive, half-baked idea as though it were the plan all along, with the confidence to even tell himself it was because he’s blinded by his own concept of his intelligence. Charm, rage, and a young boy’s petulance fight for supremancy in Loeb and Hoffman lets all of these play across his face, work through his hands, and seep through the vibrato in his voice.
As good as Hoffman’s Loeb is, the story is told through Leopold’s eyes – because he’s marginally more sympathetic and also because he lived (in a brilliant sight gag, Leopold’s real autobiography Life Plus 99 Years is given prominent space in the foreground of the set), where Leopold was murdered in prison between the end of the events depicted here and the parole hearing in the framing sequence. Luke Stewart give a performance so gripping it’s hard to believe he’s still a college student – his Leopold is a tragic hero in the Othello sense but his downfall, like Loeb’s evil, is an intersection of crippling flaws, not just one. He shows a disturbing lack of empathy, his protests about the criminal activity Loeb eggs him onto are more about a fear of getting caught, about personal fallout, far more than any worry about the damage they’re doing, even in the case of murder.
The erotic energy of the piece, the BDSM quality, has a melancholy that comes from the sense that Leopold doesn’t have any idea what turns him on – Stewart makes it clear his character doesn’t quite share Loeb’s arousal through escalating danger but he never makes a case for what does arouse him, all he seems to want is Loeb. Playing that kind of blandness, subsuming your own desires for someone else, and giving the impression that someone’s more interested in comfort than anything else, is difficult but Stewart does it perfectly. Stewart’s keening, longing voice gives the songs a real sadness even as there’s an acknowledgement that’s he’s – at best – complicit in a murder and shows no remorse. He sketches a character who’d rather die than be alone and someone’s who’s not quite the patsy both Loeb and the audience think – his having to consider the outside world in “I’m Trying to Think” is the key that unlocks everything in this show.
Those two performances hold some of the purest electricity I’ve seen in a musical in a long time. Just as important is Carignan’s razor-wire direction. In its tight 75 minute run time, this world of two hums with a frenetic energy where something is always moving but somehow it never seems rushed. As well, attention should be paid to Philip Dupont as both Musical Director and pianist, his churning beer-hall piano grounds the performance both in period and in the timing of the actors without drawing undue attention to itself. My program didn’t credit a set designer but as I brought up earlier, whoever it was outdid herself or himself, it’s a study in maximum effect with minimal elements.
Thrill Me runs Thursday through Saturday at 8:00pm and Sunday at 3:00pm through June 21, 2015. For tickets and more information visit www.shortnorthstage.org/calendar.
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All photos by Heather Wack.