Yes," says Jason Bowcutt, 26, without giving the matter much thought, "this is the best way to come to the city. I have friends who were in the same acting program I was in who've moved to New York and found it very difficult to break into theatre here. Coming into town with a show is like a miracle."
Michael Solomon, 24, his partner in the "Crime of the Century" depicted at the John Houseman Theatre, couldn't agree more. "Three-and-a-half months ago, I was sleeping in my car. Now, this . . . This is beyond my wildest dreams."
Ethan McSweeney, 27, who directed this highly dynamic duo in Never the Sinner, nods affirmatively to these testimonies but makes a stab at staying grounded in his enthusiasm: "I would say it's been like a dream, except I would never have dreamed that all of this could have happened this fast to this play."
These three -- plus a couple of supporting players (Glen Pannell, who plays the prosecuting attorney, and Howard W. Overshown, who plays a courtroom reporter) -- are living the dream that drives all stagestruck young hopefuls to New York. It's the sort of theatrical myth that always happened in Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland movies but rarely happens in real life. Such a mass debut of new talents -- aside from the occasional RSC invasion -- is scaringly scarce.
And all the sweeter when it actually does come to pass. The vehicle in which they are making their Off-Broadway beachheads is a sleeper hit that slipped into town last November from Arlington VA's Signature Theatre. It enjoyed an engagement at the American Jewish Theatre that was well received by critics and public alike, and it has now broken into an open-ended run on Theatre Row.
McSweeney, again the grounded one, makes this happy evolution seem as inevitable as toppling dominoes. He was in his fourth year as associate director of Washington, D.C.'s Shakespeare Theatre when he got a call one day from Eric Schaeffer, artistic director of the Signature Theatre in nearby Arlington. "Eric did something that never happens. He said, 'I have this play. I have all the designers. All I don't have is the director and the cast. Would you like to do it?' I pretended to take two weeks to think about it before I said yes." Stanley Brechner caught the Signature premiere and imported it for his American Jewish Theatre, where the show's publicist, Jeffrey Richards, believed his own publicity enough to produce the extended run at the Houseman.
The downside to this mass arrival of theatrical newcomers -- nothing comes without a price tag -- is that the participants are toting a depressingly heavy load. John Logan's play is a reenactment of one of the 20th century's most heinous crimes -- the thrill-killing of 14-year-old Bobby Franks by two rich intellectuals, Nathan "Babe" Leopold and Richard "Dickie" Loeb, themselves teen-agers -- and the dazzling defense Clarence Darrow waged for their lives. Before becoming these historic bad boys, Bowcutt and Solomon were Bard boys, recruited by McSweeney for his Shakespeare Theatre. "When we started five weeks of rehearsal," the director recalls, "we had two-and-a-half years of history together. That helped. I think the success of this show is about the chemistry of these two actors. They're interdigitated the same way Leopold and Loeb were. I'd like to think I knew what they could do, but the truth is I did not know they could do it as well as they did. What a plus to find that out!"
Never the Sinner is not the first Logan play to reach New York. (The Chicago-based author is, after all, all of 36.) He was previously represented here with another so-called "Crime of the Century": Hauptmann was about the Lindbergh kidnapping, and it had a "brief but distinguished" run at the Cherry Lane.
The historical roots are not only showing in these two plays, they are flaunted - and with good reason. "I've dealt with a lot of American historical subjects simply because I love the act of research," admits Logan. "Rolling up my sleeves and getting my hands dirty with primary source material is the most fulfilling part of the process for me. For Never the Sinner I spent a solid year researching. I got access to the private archives of Leopold's parole attorney, so I had letters between Leopold and Loeb and Darrow and one of the existing copies of the trial transcript, just a mother lode of material."
Did this historical purist ever feel his documentary drive would reduce his drama to just-the-facts-ma'am? "Not when I'm faced with two titanically interesting characters like Leopold and Loeb," he says. "Characters that dark and serpentine and psychologically rich are a gift to a dramatist, so as long as I tried to keep them central in my thinking while I'd be working on the play, I never had a problem with making the historical material theatrical."
The trial is not re-created verbatim but, rather, telescoped dramatically. "There are bits and pieces taken from psychiatric testimony," Logan allows, "and most of Darrow's summation is actually his because I wouldn't have the hubris to try to improve on him. He spoke for two days, so it's simply me cutting."
In theatre time that famous summation comes down to six mesmerizing minutes, and in a show dominated by new-to-New York faces, it is delivered by a seasoned Broadway veteran, Robert Hogan, who makes it stick without suspender-snapping and pencil-pointing. "Darrow did all his stuff without notes," says Hogan. "If a guy does that, he's not going to be playing with his pencils. He's going to be thinking, and that's joyous. What a mind to try and get into! Thank God the guy who originated the part decided not to come up. I love him."
Darrow also provided Logan with the title of his play, and the author recycled the quote -- "I may hate the sin but never the sinner" -- into a fictional scene. "When I came across that line in my research," says Logan, "it was like big neon signs -- 'This Is Your Title!' 'Don't Mess With This Title!' -- so I didn't."
-- By Harry Haun