FRAYED KNOT

Rope, presented by Banzai Entertainment at Planet Earth Multi-Cultural Theatre, is a murder mystery but not a whodunit--the play begins with the two murderers strangling their victim, hiding his body, then serving their guests a buffet from the trunk into which the corpse has been stuffed.

The story examines why these two young men have committed their crime, and speculates whether anyone in their upper-class circle will figure out that they've been grazing on snacks served on a trunk holding a corpse. If the title and situation sound familiar, that's because Alfred Hitchcock made a movie of the story in 1948, based on a 1929 play by Patrick Hamilton. Meyer Levin used the same material in his popular novel Compulsion, which was also made into a film in 1959.

Banzai's production is the original 1929 play by Hamilton, who also authored the play on which Gaslight was based. It's a stagey, claustrophobic version of a story that has fascinated true crime and legal buffs for decades.

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Rope in all its versions springs from the real saga of the 1924 kidnaping, possible rape, disfigurement and murder of 14-year-old Bobby Franks by college students Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. The sons of well-to-do businessmen, Leopold and Loeb shocked the nation with the murder, done merely because they thought themselves superior enough to carry it off.

The criminals were also controversial because they were Jewish and allegedly homosexual.

Rope strays far afield from the actual case--while Franks' body was found in a culvert and traced to Leopold and Loeb through Leopold's eyeglasses, left at the scene of the crime, Hamilton's dramatization focuses on the two's egotism, and their intellectualization of what they've done. And, of course, the possibility that the murder came about because of their perverted, dominant-and-submissive relationship. The play pins the blame on dangerous intellectualism in the form of Rupert Caddell, a professor who taught one of the young men that Nietzsche and his Superman theories justify homicide. Hitchcock's film, coming in 1948, drew the inevitable parallels to fascism and Germany's implementation of plans for a master race.

This production of Rope updates the action to the present time, however, and puzzles more than clarifies. Blaming intellectualism has been out of vogue for some time; murderers now claim child abuse, social factors and emotional problems for their behavior.

And there remains the sticky problem of homosexuality. At the time of the murder, and even when Hitchcock released his film, nobody questioned the premise that homosexuals weren't normal, deserving of pity at best and condemnation at worst. While the real crime had overtones of pedophilia, Rope makes the victim their contemporary, raising the question of why these two erstwhile bachelors--as they are presented in the play and in the movie--picked the victim they did, a college friend. One guesses, with no alternative presented, that he just happened to be there.

But no straight bachelors act quite like Brandon and Phillip do, not with their little quarrels and bitchy whispered conferences. Most critics acknowledge that, at the time, the homosexuality of the two murderers could not be mentioned, only subtly portrayed. But portrayed it is, in subtext and symbolism.

At the beginning of the play, before their guests arrive, Brandon is gloating over the murder. He picks up a bottle of champagne, and fumbles and gropes it while reminiscing about the murder. Phillip finally takes the bottle from him, and successfully opens it. This one gay film critic interprets as symbolic masturbation. Rope has lots of similar moments, and in 1994, the cumulative effect becomes tiresome. We're left with a pervasive sense of evil having something to do with sexual orientation and Nietzsche. Rope ends up being a morality tale of the hazy kind that Hollywood used to love, with evildoers being caught and punished.

Drawing parallels with the film is inevitable, and if updating the time to the present was supposed to discourage the temptation, it didn't. The costumes for Banzai's production were so bad that at first I thought it was supposed to be a parody. Somebody really ought to tell this company that two gay men of these social and intellectual pretensions wouldn't look so tacky. The busybody Mrs. Atwater was a parody, somewhere east of Hitchcock and west of John Waters. Why would Brandon and Phillip even let in their door a woman wearing a muumuu and plastic jewelry? These out-of-character details detracted too much from the rarefied world the murderers thought justified their "perfect" crime.

But Rope is a fun mystery, and its theatricality stands up well over the years. The gloom, doom and overripe suspense are still impressive in Hitchcock's film, and now that the closet door is open, the original Leopold and Loeb are certainly ready to step out in someone's new version of the tale.

 
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