Playwrights: John Logan. At: Project 891 Theatre Company at Chemically Imbalanced Comedy, 1420 W. Irving Park. Contact: project891theatreco.com; $15. Runs through: Aug. 2. Photo courtesy of Project 891 Theatre Company
Never the Sinner is the first full-fledged production of the new Project 891 Theatre Company ( which takes its name from the famed Depression-era New York unit of the Federal Theatre Project ) .
Project 891 makes an impressive and intensely Chicago-centric debut with John Logan's acclaimed 1985 drama on the 1924 murder trial involving gay lovers Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb.
Like it or not, those Hyde Park college boys continue to be notorious gay icons of Chicago. Leopold and Loeb's random thrill killing of Bobby Franks whipped up the media into a frenzy ( they called it "The Crime of the Century" ) and their heinous act would inspire filmmakers to create Rope, Compulsion, Murder by Numbers and Swoon. ( There is even a 2005 off-Broadway musical called Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story. )
Director Michael Rashid and his design team all intelligently approach Never the Sinner, making some gripping and stylish theater out of it in the process. The original and archival black and white film footage assembled by Jim Vendiola is a wonderful touch, as are the 1920 pop songs compiled by sound designer Zeha Rae Yeatman. And though no set designer is credited, the gray space filled with light boxes and diagrams of ornithology and phrenology studies keenly reflects Logan's script of shifting time and psychological questions. ( It's also a great clinical approach for the play's death-penalty arguments. )
Not quite so perfect is the acting company, which is a mixed bag. On opening night, many actors made minor stumbles with lines, briefly taking you out of the world they were creating.
It must be difficult to play a charismatic mad man like Loeb, and Matt Hays' approach shows more effort into playing crazy instead of honestly embodying the character. Yet there is no denying Hays' handsomeness, which provides a great motivation for Ron Popp's Leopold to obsessively dote on Loeb and do all his dangerous dares.
Popp certainly has more to play as the insecure and much-in-love Leopold, and Popp runs with those conflicted emotions expertly.
Robert Kaercher is fun as tightly wound prosecutor Robert Crowe, quite a contrast to Gary Murphy's laid-back approach to the legendary defending attorney Clarence Darrow ( perhaps a bit too lethargic for my tastes ) .
Rounding out the cast are Matthew Lozano, Jacob A. Ware and Liz Hoffman, each playing a variety of characters ranging from expert witnesses to headline-proclaiming reporters. Lozano and Ware get the 1920s style just right, but Hoffman could have brought more snap and vocal differentiation for her reporter and girlfriend characters.
With Never the Sinner, Project 891 makes an auspicious debut on Chicago's storefront theater scene. Let's hope the company keeps up the good work in all future endeavors.