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The plot thickens

Times Staff Writer

On a mostly bare stage, two actors are rehearsing the perfect murder. One of them mimes driving an automobile while the other searches for a young victim to lure into the back seat. The year is 1924. Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb are about to make history as the country’s most famous thrill killers.

During the rehearsal, the director and playwright, Daniel Henning, looks over the actors’ shoulders, choreographing their eye movements at each turn. Playing in the background is George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” Henning wanted to give the scene a Roaring ‘20s ambience, and he found a recording dating from the same year as the killing.

“This particular version was released two weeks after the murder, so we’re cheating a little,” he says during a break.

It’s a small cheat, one that audiences probably won’t notice. But that doesn’t stop Henning from sweating the details. His near-obsessive attention to historical accuracy is the driving force behind his docudrama “Dickie and Babe,” which premieres Saturday at the Blank Theatre Company’s 2nd Stage Theatre in Hollywood.

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Henning founded the small company 18 years ago and has turned it into one of Los Angeles’ most respected theater organizations. For his first foray into playwriting, he has set an ambitious if strangely academic goal for himself -- to tell the Leopold and Loeb story as objectively as possible, minimizing conjecture and dramatic embellishment.

For the murder scene, he visited the Chicago neighborhood where the killers lived and retraced their path so he could later re-create their movements on stage.

“Maybe I’m the only person who’ll understand all of the nuances,” Henning, 42, says at his home in Silver Lake. “There’s something about knowing that what you’re seeing actually happened. I think people will be fascinated by that, even if they’ve heard the story a hundred times before.”

For those who haven’t: Nathan “Babe” Leopold (Aaron Himelstein) was a shy, brainy student at the University of Chicago when he met Richard “Dickie” Loeb (Nick Niven), an outgoing and flawlessly handsome classmate. They quickly became friends and eventually lovers.

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On May 21, 1924, they kidnapped and murdered a 14-year-old boy named Bobby Franks. During the trial, the killers showed no remorse for their motiveless crime. They received life sentences each, narrowly escaping the death penalty thanks to their lawyer, Clarence Darrow.

For three years, Henning immersed himself in court transcripts, medical reports, letters and other documents. Each scene in “Dickie and Babe” is based on one or more of those sources, he says. Many feature dialogue pulled verbatim from historical records, though Henning had to invent dialogue for some of the more private conversations.

“My rule was that their words will always be better than my words,” he explains. “I wanted to give the characters the chance to speak for themselves as much as possible.”

As homework for the actors, Henning selected Jack London’s homoerotic novel “The Sea Wolf,” which Leopold and Loeb often read to each other. On stage, the actors use an actual 1917 copy of the book.

He also assigned Samuel Hopkins Adams’ “Flaming Youth,” a tale of sexual freedom during the ‘20s, as required reading for the supporting cast, which includes TV veterans Michael Urie (“Ugly Betty”), Vicki Lewis and Charlie Schlatter.

At a recent rehearsal, one cast member complained that the novel was “kind of boring.” Henning broke his usual upbeat demeanor and tersely replied, “Well, read it!”

“Dickie and Babe” is so steeped in encyclopedic arcana that it risks feeling clinical and esoteric at times. Henning is betting that the information overload will provide the breadth for audiences to draw their own conclusions about the killers’ psychology.

“I’m not trying to force an opinion on the audience,” he explains. “There are no easy answers for why they did it. Each detail adds up to make a complicated truth.”

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Playwrights have traditionally taken enormous liberties with the Leopold and Loeb case. Some of them say the killers’ fundamental inscrutability almost invites reinterpretation.

Meyer Levin’s “Compulsion” (1957) changed the names of the killers and created composite characters, while Patrick Hamilton’s “Rope” (1929) set the action in London and concocted a radically different plot line. (Hamilton always denied that his play, the basis for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 film, was based on the case.)

Stephen Dolginoff’s 2005 musical “Thrill Me” is playing at Hudson Backstage in Hollywood, just two blocks away from the Blank. This compact two-hander sets the Leopold and Loeb story to a brooding piano score and features a twist ending that the author invented.

“I created my personal version of the story,” says Dolginoff, speaking from his home in New York. “It’s not a docudrama or a biography. It’s a musical thriller. I think it’s a story that can be told a million different ways.”

Henning says part of the reason he wrote “Dickie and Babe” was in reaction to some of these earlier plays.

“Something in me says you can only reinterpret a story when we know what the truth is to begin with,” he explains. “Otherwise you’re not reinterpreting anything. You’re putting out misinformation.”

One Leopold and Loeb drama that Henning says he respects is John Logan’s “Never the Sinner.” An Oscar-nominated screenwriter (“The Aviator,” “Sweeney Todd”), Logan wrote the play in 1983 as a theater student at Northwestern University. He drew on many of the same historical documents and newspaper reports that Henning used.

“The more I went in the more fascinating and obsessive it became,” Logan recalls by phone. “I became very sympathetic to the killers, too much so at some points. They were about the same age as I was when I wrote the play. I tried not to lose track of the barbarity of their actions, but they’re very seductive characters.”

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Henning hopes “Dickie and Babe” will clarify at least one lingering enigma -- the exact nature of their gay relationship. “Compulsion” and “Rope” masked their characters’ homosexuality in keeping with the conventions of the era. On the other end of the spectrum, Tom Kalin’s highly stylized film “Swoon” (1992) depicted their affair as unambiguously gay, complete with bedroom scenes.

The reality lies somewhere in the middle, according to Henning. He found a description of the killers’ quid pro-quo sexual pact in the court transcripts and incorporated the words into the second act of the play.

“They were little boys playing at sex,” he says. “It was a small part of what they did together. I hope in some way this will put an end to all of the speculation.”

Drawing comparisons

It’s easy to spot shades of both Leopold and Loeb in Henning’s personality. In fact, the writer-director seems more than willing to draw comparisons between himself and the infamous duo.

As a child, Henning says he projected a precocious intellectualism, much like the cerebral Leopold. Henning grew up in a middle-class neighborhood where he was constantly called a “faggot” by his peers. “Kids can sense when another kid is gay,” he says. “I got called names from the second grade through high school. Babe went through a lot of that too, and I definitely responded to his story as a gay man.”

If Henning carries a Loeb gene, it’s in his giddy and easy-to-laugh personality. “I’ve always been 4 years old and 40,” he jokes. Stacy Reed, the Blank’s producing director, says that Henning “looks at everything with wide eyes. He has a constant excitement about him.”

In rehearsals, Henning spends a lot of time perfecting the sound of Loeb’s laugh. Doctors, friends and family members talked about the killer’s guffaw, documents say. One report describes it as a “hearty” chortle that Loeb often directed “at a great number of things that weren’t humorous.”

In “Dickie and Babe,” Loeb unleashes his giggle at awkward moments, including a scene in which he’s caught in bed with Leopold. “Sometimes he used it as a defense mechanism and sometimes to manipulate people,” says Henning.

Near the end one interview, Henning breaks out into his own singular laugh -- a high-pitched clarion that combines cheerfulness with devilish overtones. “I bet I have a laugh like Dickie’s,” he says. “I like to be a bit mischievous too.”

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david.ng@latimes.com

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‘Dickie and Babe’

Where: Blank Theatre Company, 2nd Stage Theatre, 6500 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays

Ends: March 16

Price: $22 to $28

Contact: (323) 661-9827

Also

What: “Thrill Me”

Where: Havok Theatre Company, Hudson Backstage Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 and 7 p.m. Sundays

Price: $34 to $38

Contact: (323) 960-4429


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