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Theater review: Queen City Theatre Company's Rope

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Nearly five years after Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb kidnapped and murdered their 14-year-old neighbor, Bobby Franks, the 1929 dramatization of their notorious crime, Patrick Hamilton's Rope, opened in London. Classically, the story had hubris to spare, for Loeb had written of himself and his best bud in Nietzschean terms as supermen, "exempted from the ordinary laws which govern men."

Bravado was tempered by prudence. The two prodigies knew that committing the perfect crime required elaborate preparations to elude detection. In transporting the "crime of the century" from Chicago to London, Hamilton contrived masterfully to observe the classic Aristotelian unities of time and place. To do that, the playwright ditched the kidnapping, lavishing his creativity on the back end of the killing.

Now the victim is even better-known to his killers, Charles Granillo and Wyndham Brandon, and of marriageable age. They have brought him to their apartment, strangled him to death, and stuffed him in a chest in the middle of their living room. Now the real game begins, for Brandon has invited, among others, the victim's fiancée, the fiancée's ex-boyfriend, and the victim's father to a farewell soiree — before the two young scholars drive back to Oxford and dispose of the corpse along the way.

Dramatically, the keen suspense in Rope is all about brinksmanship. Gathering the victim's friends and loved ones in the same room as his corpse isn't enough for Brandon: The chest must serve as the guests' dinner table. Now we get to the psychological aspect that likely fascinated Alfred Hitchcock when he adapted this script to the silver screen in 1948.

Call it thrill-seeking, but the Hitchcock audience indulges in a similar brinksmanship when they go to a suspense or horror film. We're testing ourselves to see how much peril we can take, counting on making it through the ordeal, but not totally sure. That's the thrill. If we're seeking it, we have an emotional kinship with Brandon. Part of our risk at Rope is the implication of catching ourselves empathizing with him.

It's been seven years since he directed Never the Sinner, a literal retelling of the Leopold-Loeb saga, for Off-Tryon Theatre Company, but Glenn Griffin obviously hasn't lost his zest for the material, helming Queen City Theatre Company's latest effort at Spirit Square. He luxuriates in the sexual underpinnings of the story, showing us Brandon and Charles as the lights go up, stripped down to their briefs and entwined in their murder weapon, lovemaking on top of the chest. No doubt about it, Brandon's in the saddle.

Impeccably coiffed and outfitted, Berry Newkirk has the gaunt cerebral look of Brandon and plays him with an effete sangfroid, chillingly precise, calculating, and polite. He absorbs the suspense of the 102-minute evening brilliantly, much of it emanating from Charles, a bumbling, nerveless, neurotic, migraine-prone, and alcoholic choice for an accomplice. While Brandon's most astute guest is sniffing foul play, the gutless Charles is unraveling and threatening to spill the beans — or will he drink himself into a fortuitous stupor before that happens?

Without an intermission to help him out, Justin Younts transforms himself as Charles from the sleek hunk of the opening to a puffy, pasty-faced, fear-ridden decrepitude by evening's end. His fears are nicely founded on the arrogantly irritating performance of Austin Vaccaro as Rupert Cadell, the killers' crippled and obnoxious nemesis. Another good reason to empathize with the devils.

The others onstage are mere accessories to the thrill-ride, but Don McManus as the victim's father, Sir Johnstone Kentley, blustered so convincingly, arguing against Brandon's — and Cadell's — Nietzschean beliefs, that he sufficiently veiled his struggles with his lines. Whitney Drury as fiancée Leila and Alexander Gagne as her ex-beau Raglan sparked slowly, surely, and unsurprisingly, insidiously devaluing the treasure in the chest.

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