Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, the notorious “thrill killers” of 1924, got their thrills not only from a series of crimes that culminated with the murder of a 13-year-old boy, but from each other’s bodies. This point, while downplayed in Leopold and Loeb dramatizations over the years (including Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 film “Rope”), is made abundantly clear in Stephen Dolginoff’s one-act musical Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story, now on stage at Diversionary Theatre in University Heights. The physicality of their relationship fueled the physicality of Leopold and Loeb’s kidnapping and murder of young Bobby Franks. As portrayed in Thrill Me, the two privileged University of Chicago law students hungered for each other and hungered to commit the perfect crime.
Thrill Me is a fast-moving, artfully staged character portrait of the two thrill killers. The lean, glowering Loeb (Scott Nickley) appears to be the mastermind and chief manipulator, but as the story unfolds, we learn that bespectacled Leopold (Michael Parrot) is not the neurotic dupe he seems to be. Under the direction of Bret Young, Nickley and Parrot inhabit the mostly prop-less stage with a brooding, desperate energy. Neither is a particularly impressive singer, but the show’s score really doesn’t call for any vocal theatrics, and the solo-piano accompaniment makes the proceedings almost a dark cabaret. As grim as the subject matter is, Thrill Me comes with its share of one-liners, and often laughter rang from the audience on opening night. Possibly we laugh at what scares us, and these were two seriously scary dudes.
As to Dolginoff’s score, the title song and the sinister “Superior” are standouts, but you don’t expect a show-stopper in Thrill Me and you don’t get one.
Notable in this production is the choreography of Michael Mizerany, who moves the actors across and around the small stage with the restless passion that must have resided in the dark souls of Leopold and Loeb.
Historical footnote, and one that is addressed at the end of Thrill Me: Leopold and Loeb eventually got life plus 99 years for the boy’s murder. Leopold was eventually paroled in 1958. Loeb was killed by a fellow prisoner and never again tasted freedom.
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat