If you ask me…
- Tom Holehan
Long Wharf Offers New Play by Mastrosimone
Like a biopic produced by Oliver Stone and TMZ, “Ride the Tiger”, William Mastrosimone’s superficial but absorbing new play about the Kennedy years, has plenty of well-known gossip and innuendo played out in salacious detail. Although few surprises will be discovered here, the Long Wharf Theatre production is bound to have its fans.
All the characters in “Ride the Tiger” are based on real people (even though the playwright coyly only identifies them by their first names). The main focus of the play is the triangle between John F. Kennedy, party girl Judith Exner and mobster Sam Giancano. Frank Sinatra and Joe Kennedy, Sr. complete the cast of characters in the play set between 1959-1963. Spanning locations from Hyannisport, Las Vegas and Miami Beach to New York, Chicago and, eventually, the Oval Office, “Ride the Tiger” is nothing if not ambitious. It compresses time and details to dwell on the lurid triangle at its center and how it all may have played out in this “Mad Men” era well before the Internet changed life as we know it.
According to program notes, Mastrosimone apparently got most of his information directly from Frank Sinatra who was the subject of a 1992 mini-series the playwright wrote about the singer. There’s not much in “Ride the Tiger” that should shock people even as it confidently suggests that JFK would not have won the White House without Sam Giancano’s muscle or that Judith Exner seemed to have a direct pass to the Oval Office whenever she wished. The play moves along quickly though some vignettes seem overwritten, repetitive and in need of serious editing. On the opposite end, however, the role of Sinatra (smoothly played by Paul Anthony Stewart) seems the thinnest in the writing.
Casting at Long Wharf is mostly spot-on with Christina Bennett Lind knowing and sexy as Exner while Jordan Lage steals nearly every scene as the colorful, volatile Giancano. As written and performed, the character is far more interesting than JFK causing you to wonder why Exner has trouble choosing between the two. Broadway veteran John Cunningham is thoroughly convincing as the senior Kennedy though a victim of some of Mastrosimone’s cruder jokes when Joe suffers a stroke. In the crucial central role, Douglas Sills really doesn’t begin to capture the driven charisma of JFK. In addition to his wavering Boston accent and doughy physicality, the actor’s chemistry with Lind is sadly lacking.
Director Gordon Edelstein has bridged the play’s many scenes smoothly including an especially good sequence late in the second act when Exner is alternating between both men. Sven Ortel’s projection design adds immeasurably to Eugene Lee’s functional settings while Jess Goldstein has firm control over the period costuming. Not a perfect play in its current form, but the material certainly continues to fascinate and Long Wharf’s polished production is not without merit.
“Ride the Tiger” continues at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre through April 21st. For further information or ticket reservations, call the theatre box office at 203.787.4282 or visit: www.longwharf.org.
Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: email@example.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.