So many 20th-century murders were dubbed "The Crime of the Century" that erstwhile Chicago playwright-turned-Academy-Award-nominated screenwriter John Logan could have made a career from that carnival of mayhem alone — perhaps as a decade-by-decade, true-crime version of August Wilson's celebrated cycle of plays on the African-American experience. As it is, Logan (who won the Tony Award for "Red," his portrait of Mark Rothko, and more recently penned the screenplay for "Skyfall") first won local acclaim in 1986 with "Never the Sinner," based on the 1920s Leopold and Loeb case, followed the next year by his portrait of the German immigrant executed for the kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby in the 1930s.
"Hauptmann," now in a taut revival with Bohemian Theatre Ensemble under Stephen M. Genovese's nimble direction, also helped kick-start the career of Denis O'Hare in the title role. But Jeremy Trager as Hauptmann — by turns feverish and fearful, sardonic and sorrowful — deserves his own set of accolades. This is a smart and soulful performance that, by rights, should land Trager on the must-call list for casting directors all over town. As the narrator / ringmaster of the media circus and judicial shenanigans that helped seal Bruno Richard Hauptmann's fate, Trager is simply entrancing, even when his initial role as a wronged victim of xenophobia begins to slip into something decidedly more complicated.
Unlike, say, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's celebrated "Paradise Lost" trilogy of documentaries on the West Memphis Three, which left little doubt that viewers were rubbernecking at a railroading, Logan's take on Hauptmann's guilt or innocence is far more equivocal. True, the evidence against him was never more than circumstantial — but then again, neither was the evidence against O.J. Simpson. In similar "If I Did It" mode, Trager's Hauptmann delivers a haunting monologue in third person at the close of the first act, imagining step-by-step the journey the kidnapper took into the cozy bubble of fame and familial warmth encasing the aviator, his wife, and their 20-month-old son, and slowly building a litany of horrific — and literal — missteps that led to the child's death.
The second act is more of a perfunctory courtroom drama, though Nathan Randall as Wilentz, the hectoring prosecutor, and Nathan Grant as a series of questionable "expert" witnesses, deliver rat-a-tat portraits of expediency over morality. Chris Amos and Sasha Kraichnan as Charles and Anne Lindbergh provide a glamorous reverse image of Hauptmann and his own stalwart spouse, Anna (Eleanor Katz).
By the time Trager's Hauptmann goes to his final assignation with "Old Sparky," the intimacy of the Heartland Studio handily implicates the audience as part of the tabloid-hungry crowd waiting outside the New Jersey state prison. We will probably never know with any certainty whether or not Bruno Hauptmann was guilty or innocent — but this production of Logan's play, anchored by Trager's magnificent performance, makes it clear that his trial was a travesty.
When: Through April 21
Where: Heartland Studio, 7016 N. Glenwood Ave.
Running time: 2 hours
Tickets: $20 at 866-811-4111 or bohotheatre.comCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times