In the annals of serial killers, a particularly hideous chapter will forever be reserved for Jeffrey Dahmer.
By his own admission, Dahmer killed 17 males in Wisconsin and Ohio between 1978 and his arrest in 1991. Their ages ranged from 14 to 33. Dismemberment, the storage of remains, and even some cannibalism added an extra, sickening layer to the crimes.
Like all monstrous humans, Dahmer fascinated as much as he appalled. That he should have become the subject of a play is not really so surprising.
What surprises me more is that Baltimore audiences have had two opportunities in three years to see the Dahmer-centered "Apartment 213," written by and starring Joseph W. Ritsch, founding member of Iron Crow Theatre Company and now co-producing artistic director of Rep Stage in Columbia.
The 2010 Iron Crow production was at a church hall in Mount Vernon; the company's current staging is at Baltimore Theatre Project, a better fit all around.
Fluidly directed by Stephen Nunns, the one-act, roughly hour-long piece unfolds with considerable tautness, heightened by Alec Lawson's subtle lighting; a haze of electronic sound (designed by Ritsch and Bryan Schlein); and occasional, earthy video (Shannon McPhee). The vintage voice of Nat King Cole adds a striking touch to the audio/visual package at key moments.
"Apartment 213" does not follow a conventional plot path or seek to analyze in a deep way the killer's psyche and motivation. Still, a telling story does emerge of a young man with warped needs and fears. In Dahmer's world, finely conjured here by a sparse set (Ritsch designed that, too), everything is focused on pleasures that provide escape from the tedium of working in a Milwaukee chocolate factory.
There are benign pleasures in this world — notably the fish tank that Dahmer obsesses over — but the evil kind clearly dominate. With each snap of Dahmer's ever-ready Polaroid, you sense his pathetic need to preserve the moment, just as he would later preserve body parts of those he found desirable.
Ritsch is reprising his assured portrayal of the killer, who seeks out companions with the same deadpan pick-up litany: "Hi, I'm Jeff. Can I buy you a drink? Can I to take your picture? Poses and stuff. I can pay you $50." Those words thread through the play like reiterative patterns in a minimalist composition.
With his tense, hungry glances, Ritsch conveys the gnawing force of Dahmer's compulsions. There is no way to turn this character into someone truly sympathetic (a sobbing scene doesn't quite persuade), but Ritsch succeeds in making him human. That's the scariest aspect of "Apartment 213."
Will Manning is back in the role of Victim (more accurately, Victims), giving a performance even more nuanced and affecting than he did three years ago. His makes the concluding scene of an unsuspecting young man flirting with Dahmer right up to the end almost unbearably chilling.
Highly effective stretches of choreography in the production — they're variations on an insane dance of death — bring out remarkable work from both actors.
Given the violence and nudity (actual and on film) involved, it's hard not to feel like a creepy voyeur watching the play. But at a time when TV viewers flock to such shows as "Dexter," "CSI" and "Criminal Minds," any charge of exploitation would ring pretty hollow.
Neither sensationalized nor romanticized, "Apartment 213" is an inventive attempt to peer behind something awful, something distorted, and look for a clue to the question that will forever hang in the air: Why?
If you go
"Apartment 213" will run through Oct. 12 at Baltimore Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St. Tickets are $18 to $23. Call 410-752-8558, or go to theatreproject.org.