Blood, Lust, and Legacies

Two-man one-act plus five by Williams equals two must-sees.

Bartley (left) and Dolginoff dialing "M" for murder musical.

Bartley (left) and Dolginoff dialing "M" for murder musical.

I’ve never adapted to musicals. All those overblown gestures, the rousing, melodramatic sentiments, the ineluctable need to break into…song! And yet ArtsWest’s production of Thrill Me—based on the legendary murder trial that inspired Hitchcock’s Rope as well as a handful of other films and plays—has made me a convert.

It’s a one-act, two-actor work created by New York–based actor-writer Stephen Dolginoff, who—thanks to the deep pockets of PONCHO and Paul Allen—has been brought out to play the part of Nathan Leopold (the Farley Granger part in Rope). The play hews fairly closely to the facts of the case. In 1924, Leopold and Richard Loeb, two well-off college students in Chicago, murdered teenager Bobby Franks as he was walking home from school, a crime inspired by the two men’s sublimated or not-so-sublimated sexual desire mixed in with a heavy dose of Nietzschean philosophy: They wanted to prove themselves “superior men,” so above the humdrum mores of everyday society that they could kill without regard to consequences.

In a brilliant move, Dolginoff channels the play through Leopold’s sexual obsession for the charismatic and possibly sociopathic Loeb, engendering a romantic sympathy in the audience; we feel the tension, the ambivalence, and, ultimately, the killing attraction that caused Leopold to act against his better nature. The action is structured as a flashback, asLeopold argues—nay, confesses—his case before the parole board after 33 years in the clink. (Loeb was shanked, and killed, in a prison shower fight in 1936, a wildly Freudian and fitting end.)

Seattle actor John Bartley plays Loeb, a role to which, at first, he seems a bit unsuited. As the character is introduced, in a scene where he seduces a reluctant but emotionally needy Leopold into assisting him in committing arson, Bartley’s Loeb appears too thick and hunky, lacking in the fey malevolence and withering charm with which the part is, accurately or not, imagined. As the action progresses and the suspense builds, however, Bartley begins to really sink his teeth into the evil side of Loeb’s being.

Right around the time of the fourth number—a wonderfully menacing and darkly humorous piece about the blood contract of mutual need and destruction the two men form—Bartley’s Loeb undergoes a transformation. As his eyes subtly narrow and his brow slightly furrows, he becomes both Machiavellian and Svengali-like, a vicious and seductive presence capable, perhaps, of inciting the ultimate crime. And Dolginoff, for his part, is delightful—as well he should be, this being his baby. His Leopold is both adorable and abysmal, a tenor-voiced romantic whose apparent helplessness to resist Loeb may or may not stifle the nagging of his obviously superior intellect. Bartley’s singing voice is strong but unspectacular. It’s fitting that Leopold be the better singer, which is certainly the case here.

Heavily Sondheim influenced, Dolginoff’s music—expertly played by pianist Karen Knoller—captures the material’s feel of dark and sexy foreboding. Christopher Zinovitch’s direction is confident yet aptly unobtrusive, and the set design, with its chiaroscuro accents of muted lights and continual sprinkle of Fritz Lang–like mist, completes the noirish atmosphere of desire and danger. This play has much to say about the nature of romantic longing and sexual perversion—perversion not in the brute sense of desire, but in how people use that desire to manipulate one another to their own ends, be they love, crime, or something even more disturbing. That Dolginoff captures all of this with such wit and humor and depth and fun made me want to, well…sing.

The facts: Five early, one-act shorts by Tennessee Williams are receiving their West Coast premiere at Stone Soup Theatre. The opinion: Were 5 X Tenn being staged at midnight by ratty sock puppets at the Greyhound terminal, you still should go. The reasons: Williams was our wrecked genius, a brilliant native American playwright who shook loose the stodgy formalism of Calvinist theater traditions with his steamy, perverse portraits of Southern culture on the skids. There is yet to be an American playwright who can match Williams for his organic portraits of blood, guts, thwarted dreams, bent carnality, and filial disintegration—all set amid the swampy, boozy miasma of a South slowly unraveling from its antediluvian if cursed glory. A chance to glimpse the early vision of this great writer—essentially his juvenilia—should not be missed, regardless of the quality of the production.

Fortunately, sock puppets are not the order of the day. Stone Soup puts forth a strong and wonderfully spirited effort, capturing the sweltering realism and bawdy humor of Williams’ writing. Directed by Julie Beckman and performed by a rotating ensemble of nine actors—including the always fine Brandon Whitehead—this production is a rare treat and, frankly, not to be missed.

The cycle opens with a bang. These Are the Stairs You Got to Watch is at once economical and sprawling, a coming-of-age story and an elegy for squandered youth. Set in the lobby of an apparently decaying movie theater, the play revolves around the relationship between a jaded older usher and his recently hired co-worker, a wide-eyed 16-year-old kid. Thanks to some wonderful performances, including Whitehead’s turn as the slouching, lecherous old theater owner, this piece reveals several facets of Williams’ early talent—his ear for dialogue, his eye for detail, his ability to capture in quick strokes the oceanic psychology of busted-out character.

Not all of the pieces are as contained and complete as the opening bit, but they all offer fascinating insight into the playwright’s thematic concerns and early development. And the cycle is much more than an antiseptic case study or a mere curiosity for confirmed fans. Beckman and her cast bring these short plays to a kind of salty, rollicking life, treating them with just the right combination of reverence and playfulness. They are, to be sure, entertaining in themselves, brief explosions of color, texture, and depth, Tennessee-style. Anyone interested in the legacy of theater in this country would be well advised to get thee to Stone Soup’s small, tight space in Wallingford and breathe in, deeply, the thick and steamy atmosphere of these recently revealed plays.

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