Ride the Tiger
By Marlene S. Gaylinn
President Harry S. Truman once said that, “...being a President is like riding a tiger. A man has to keep on riding or be swallowed.” A Chinese proverb clarifies this statement still further: “Once you climb the tiger, it’s hard to get off.” In other words, politics is a dangerous game. You have to hold on tight to maintain power and it’s hard to please everyone who helped you get to the top. William Mastrosimone’s fascinating play, “Ride The Tiger,” at Long Wharf Theatre, is aptly named. It illustrates how JFK’s dad negotiated with the underworld in order to secure his son’s election, the part JFK’s mistress, Judith Campbell Exner played as a go-between two worlds, and what the author believes actually happened behind the scenes that led to the president’s assassination.
There have been many theories about why Kennedy was shot and each story appears to be reasonable -- particularly when Cuba is mentioned. Mastsrosimone, who interviewed Frank Sinatra for a mini-series, seems to have acquired one of the best, behind-the-scenes stories straight from the horse’s mouth. It was JFK’s good friend, Sinatra, who introduced Judith Campbell (a girlfriend whom he had just broken off with) to Kennedy. Sinatra had direct ties to Sam Giancana, head of the Chicago Mafia. Campbell was the mistress of both JFK and the mob boss at the same time. These entanglements took place against the background of the Cuban issue. The logic behind efforts to ride the tiger or to hold on tightly to power is made clear by this absorbing play.
It’s not easy to capture a time period that many people remember vividly. Happily, Gordon Edelstein’s directing is pretty true to the era and the familiar characters, even though there is a speech problem. While it is sometimes hard to understand Douglas Sills’s New England accent, especially when he turns his back to the audience, he does give JFK’s personality credible justice. Kennedy’s father, Joe, played by John Cunningham, is introduced as the powerful, Kennedy patriarch, however, his foggy voice and rapid-fire sentences are also slurred by a difficult, New England accent. You will definitely recognize Paul Stewart's recreation of Sinatra’s well-known stances and rough, speech characteristics, and Christina Lind’s very attractive “Judy,” is a sympathetic study of a opportunist who becomes a conflicted victim of circumstance.
Don’t miss Jordan Lage’s wickedly charming, depiction of the smooth, self-confident Mafia boss, Sam Giancana. There is no difficulty understanding him or his personality. Each word is clearly pronounced and echoed by his body movements. Like the poem, "The Spider and the Fly," the actor practically dances across the stage as he entices Judy into his mysterious web -- where he eventually bites her on the thigh. With the simple set by Eugene Lee and the startling, overhead plane and train projections, plus sounds by Sven Ortel and Ryan Rumery, the audience is drawn directly into the action. We all know what finally happened to JFK and yet, there's a surprise ending to this wonderful, fairly new play. Best of all, you don't have to like history to enjoy it!
Plays to April 21