Play-Action, Directors Theatre of Chicago, at the Athenaeum Theatre Studio. In the middle of Play-Action’s first act, five college students gather in the kitchen of a grungy apartment and debate the possibility of original thought. When no clear consensus can be reached, one character proposes committing “the perfect murder” as the exemplar of an original idea.

It might have been an airtight case, had not Leopold and Loeb plotted the same crime at the University of Chicago over half a century earlier–and had Patrick Hamilton never dramatized Leopold and Loeb’s story in Rope. As it is, Christopher Nowak’s Play-Action is not even an original reworking of heavily trodden ideas. The students’ idealized notion of “justifiable homicide” blatantly co-opts Leopold and Loeb’s blatant co-opting of Nietzche. Even more egregious is a scene in which one of the characters enters clutching the victim’s bloody tongue, providing more than a faint echo of Reservoir Dogs. Yet Play-Action lacks the grizzliness and sheer terror of either script. Even a gun fails to exacerbate the tension.

Beneath its shiny veneer Play-Action might have been a sly commentary on a society whose ethics and morality are vanishing. But it isn’t. Despite some resourceful naturalistic blocking by director Amanda Weier, Nowak’s intentions simply aren’t clear enough, and his exploration of good and evil is too facile to create any kind of multilayered meaning.

–Nick Green