If the legendary 1920s era “thrill killers” Leopold and Loeb lived today would they have limited their homicidal experiment to poor little Bobby Franks?
The horror of what the Chicago academic duo did — killing in order to express their “superiority” to the rest of humanity — galvanized the nation at the time, and lived on in a series of dramatizations that included the play (and film) “Compulsion” and a more recent indie film “Swoon.”
These days, murder is so common, however, that the killers who want to become famous have to produce high body counts.
I thought about Leopold and Loeb Saturday night while I was watching the powerful new play “Collision” by Lyle Kessler which is receiving a very potent production by The Amoralists at the Rattlestick Theatre in Greenwich Village.
It’s a contemporary drama, set on a nameless college campus, where the random assignment of two young men to a dorm room leads to an eruption of violence.
“Collision” is about the way that two disparate personalities can connect to create a volatile partnership capable of anti-social behavior than neither individual would probably display on his or her own.
It’s a phenomenon the French call folie a deux and which has been explored to memorable effect in the New Zealand film “Heavenly Creatures” and the Ruth Rendell novel “A Judgement in Stone” which served as the basis for a classic Claude Chabrol suspense movie, “La Ceremonie.”
“Collision” starts with Grange (James Kautz) demonstrating his need for control by commandeering the dorm room bed that has already been claimed by Bromley (Nick Lawson). It’s a small concession that Bromley is happy to make with a new acquaintance who quickly becomes his closest friend.
Soon, Grange is extending his mind games to a sweet coed named Doe (Anna Stromberg) who willingly moves from his bed to Bromley’s due to his extraordinary powers of persuasion. The duo becomes a trio and then a quartet when the brilliant student shows that he can exert the same sort of emotional control over Professor Denton (Michael Cullen).
We sense from the start that there is a fine line between the genius of Grange and the unstable elements in his personality that feed on control and revenge. When a gun dealer arrives in the room (Craig Grant as Renel), we sense that the students and the professor have much more than an art film project on their minds.
We’ve been down this road before, in the above-mentioned plays and films, as well as in “Taxi Driver” (with its chilling private gun dealer scene) but Kessler adds fresh contemporary elements to the situation and the five terrific actors are frighteningly convincing.
Played without an intermission, “Collision” allows the audience no escape from a feeling of impending violence, but Kessler and The Amoralists are exploring rather than exploiting the roots of homicide in our culture. It makes for a riveting evening in the theater.