More than a half-century after the "crime of the century," the Leopold-Loeb case still holds a compulsive fascination for the public. It was a thrill-killing, a monstrous crime of two rich boys who kidnapped and murdered a neighborhood youngster for the experience and then were saved from hanging by Clarence Darrow's spellbinding defense.

"Complusion," Meyer Levin's novel based on the case, became a movie and a play with the courtroom confrontation as the third-act climax. The New Back Alley Theater's production of the play demonstrates the public's continuing interest in how such a terrible deed could have happened.

Playwright Levin has created tense drama from the search for that explanation and Darrow's defense plea. (Leopold, who was released in 1958 after serving 32 years in prison, successfully sued Levin for invasion of privacy, and charged that he created fictitious psychitric motivations for the crime.)

Back Alley offers three powerful performances in the key roles, backed by a good supporting cast. As Judd Steiner (the Leopold role), Vincent Wayne Anderson captures the intellectural excitement in the brilliant loner who wants to test the "furtherest limits of experience" and have control over life and death." The one problem is that he is a good-looking young man, and references to Judd Steiner's inferiority feelings because of his small stature and dark looks don't ring true on the stage.

Tom Loftis plays Artie Straus (the Loeb role) -- a callous young man who, under a blustering surface, has been psychologically scarred in an overprivileged childhood in a wealthy family. John Voorhees is Darrow incarnate, the lawyer whose plea saves the two rich boys from hanging despite the outcry from public and press.

In supporting roles, Evelyn Woolston is particularly effective as Artie's socialite mother.She carries off a poignant scene in which she come to visit her son in his jail cell and tries to understand. The other members of the cast handle their roles professionally: Paul Rubin as the outraged prosecuting attorney; Scott Hicks as the reporter and later the judge; Kathleen M. Goldpaugh and Carolyn Steinhoff as the two youngCharleston-age girlfriends; and Gregory Cavanaugh and Frank Biscaglio, each in dual appearances as psychiatrist/Artie's brother and Judd's father/state psychiatrist.

Director Frederic Lee has put together another imaginative staging in the small theater at 1365 Kennedy St. NW. He is helped by Richard Gaetjens' set design -- which uses backdrop projections and free-moving scenes -- and by the lighting design from Loftis, doubling as actor and designer.

Whether it is the fault of the play or interpretation (or real-life case), there is one distrubing flaw: The drama of the courtroom confrontation is marred by making the prosecuting attorney into a bigoted, overwrought figure who delights in using words such as "perverts." As a result, it is too easy to forget that the defendants did take a youngster's life.

The Back Alley production of "Compulsion" continues through Aug 17 with performances at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays.