A History Lesson for Gen-Xers

By Geary Danihy

Flash! Stop the presses! This just in.

How much do you know about John F. Kennedy, our 35th president? If little or nothing, then don’t read on, just go to Long Wharf Theatre and see “Ride the Tiger,” a dramatized history lesson (of sorts) with a little nudity thrown in for good measure.

 

If, however, you were born, say, in the 50s or before, then what’s played out in just under two and a half hours at the renovated Long Wharf will be, well, old news, neither shocking nor, for that matter, dramatically gripping.

 

Under the direction of Gordon Edelstein, the theater’s artistic director, this coy roman-a-clef-style drama brings us back to 1960, when a young senator named Jack (Douglas Sills) from Massachusetts is running for president. However, the candidate has a problem: he can’t keep it in his pants. He’s gotta have ‘it’ every day or, well, the poor lad gets headaches. His best pal, Frank, (Paul Anthony Stewart) a singer with mob connections, knows just the cure, a little cutie named Judy (Christina Bennett Lind), whom he’s just dumped.

 

Soon, Judy, now on the campaign trail with Jack (for medicinal purposes), catches the eye of Sam (Jordan Lage), who claims he owns Chicago. It doesn’t take long for Judy to begin shuttling back and forth between beds, bearing Sam’s baubles and bangles (and, eventually, his teeth marks on her derriere). When Jack is elected, with a little help from some wise guys, and IOUs are presented, problems arise that will be resolved in an historic manner.

 

Oddly enough, William Mastrosimone’s play, which chronicles events that shook the nation to its roots, generates little empathy for its characters and scant dramatic tension. Since most of the audience (which was definitely of a certain age) knows where all of this is going, for the evening to work the audience must be captivated by the heat generated by the actors as they bring their well-known characters to life. There are moments when the waters are simmering, trembling on the brink of coming to a boil, but it never happens.

 

Mastrsimone does have an excellent ear for dialogue, especially nifty one-liners (many given to the Capo di tutti capi), and there are extended moments when the deft dialogue entertains by its sheer cleverness. There is, for example, an extended scene when Sam and Judy first meet and Sam, with the wit and wiles of a poor man’s Metaphysical poet, uses just about every approach in the book (save a flea bite) to entice Judy. Though Lage often seems to be channeling Robert DeNiro as Al Capone in “The Untouchables,” he manages to bring his character to intriguing life, showing a lurking menace beneath the glib exterior. It is in his final scene with Judy that he gets to deliver the line that brought the house down: Judy, worried about the government investigating her, tells him that its tentacles are everywhere; Sam responds with: “So we make some f….n’ calamari.”

 

Good work is also done by John Cunningham as Jack’s father, Joe. Beneath his character’s Brahmin façade, he is manipulative, devious and amoral. The architect of Jack’s rise to power and, as the play would have it, ultimate cause for his dramatic fall, Cunningham’s Joe is a villain worthy of the Bard’s pen. In essence, he is the one who creates the tiger that both Sam and Jack are fated to ride, and because of male hubris, can’t get off.

 

One of the problems with the play is the relationship between Jack and Judy, for Sills’ Jack lacks the charisma that the real Jack was famous for. Hence, there’s little fire between the two, a lack that also must be placed at Lind’s doorstep, for her Judy seems more a teenager testing her nascent sexuality than a woman of the world capable of attracting and bedding luminaries. There’s also an off-note in Stewart’s Frank, for there’s little of the brash, I-do-it-my way crooner and a lot of a little boy desperate for attention and given to sulking when things don’t seem to go his way.

 

The production, though kept moving by Edelstein’s often creative direction, often seems longer than it actually is, primarily because of Mastrosimone’s need to touch all bases, which leads to extended expository scenes that occur throughout the play rather than just in its opening minutes -- there’s everything from Joe’s power ploys that lead to the death of Jack’s older brother to Nixon and Khruschev, the Cuban Missile Crisis, senate hearings, Marilyn Monroe and Jack’s sibling rivalry with his younger brother. A history book covering this period would be hundreds of pages long -- Mastrosimone’s script comes in at 104 pages -- so at times you get the feel that you are in a seminar in which the professor realizes he is running out of time and hence has to cram whatever he can into the time allowed.

 

Edelstein, as mentioned, keeps all of this moving as best he can, with some of his best work on view near the end of the evening as Judy, now little more than a messenger for the president and the gangster as the play out their deadly pas de deux, moves back and forth between the two men, a pawn in the hands of the powerful.

 

As for the nudity, the first occurrence is in a bedroom scene and although Sills wear’s boxer shorts, Lind is naked, (what’s good for the goose is apparently not good for the gander), but there is justification here for the nakedness. Not so with the second occurrence, which is not called for in the script and thus, we must assume, arises from a directorial decision. It is, quite simply, gratuitous, an emphasis of a line of dialogue that needs no such visual italics.

 

Although the play offers many intriguing and humorous moments, especially when Lage is center-stage, its parts do not add up to a satisfying whole. For all of the historic moments it seeks to dramatize, there is a curious hollowness at its center.

 

“Ride the Tiger” runs through April 21. For tickets or more information call 203-787-4282 or go to www.longwharf.org.

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