Ride the Riger
By Tom Nissley
William Mastrosimone’s “Ride the Tiger,” now playing at Long Wharf in New Haven, is one of those plays that makes you run to the Internet to check on stuff. In this case that’s what might be fact or fiction in the life of John Kennedy and his ride into the White House. Mastrosimone makes use of material that has been both alleged and refuted about Kennedy’s affair with Judith Exner, who was at different times also a sexual playmate of Frank Sinatra and Sam Giancana -- the head of Chicago’s crime families. The playwright has license to create his own history, of course, and the audience may want to think through how or if it is revisionist.
The characters in the play are identified only by first names: Jack (Douglas Sills), Joe (John Cunningham), Frank (Paul Anthony Stewart), Judy (Christina Bennett Lind), and Sam (Jordan Lage), plus two valets (Barbara Henschel and Kenneth Murray) who become aides, drivers, and other necessary background folks. As the rest of their names dawn on viewers, there is speculation as to whether they are well defined. Stewart played Frank just fine, but didn’t resemble Sinatra, for instance. And Sills, tall and a little chunky, may have played his part well but at the intermission different sets of women whispered how unlike their memory of JFK he was. The actors easiest to appreciate were Cunningham, as Joe; Lage, as Sam; and Ms. Lind’s Judy, either because we didn’t have distinct memories of them for comparison, or because their roles made the most sense.
There are lots of moments in the play that refer to things that probably are historically accurate, like the mob’s involvement in Cuba, and a note that the CIA had recruited Sam and his colleagues to assassinate Castro. The idea that mob-controlled voting enabled JFK to win primaries in West Virginia and Illinois, on the other hand, has been pretty well exploded as a myth, but that is certainly implicit in the script. There are references to Marilyn, and to Jackie -- at one point Judy believes that Jack might be all hers after a divorce. While bits and pieces may sound authentic to the characters in the play, it is a play, and not a documentary. But you’re not likely to be bored.
The staging is terrific. The set by Eugene Lee is open and expansive, allowing for easy diversion from Cape Cod to Las Vegas or Miami, and the White House; and a transition period when Judy moves from Sam’s house to Jack’s suite and back again several times over without missing a beat. Gordon Edelstein’s direction is studied, building to crises and a strong ending. The music and sound by Ryan Rumery are great. Costumes and lighting work well.
“Ride the Tiger” plays through April 21. Tickets arranged at www.longwharf.org, or 203-787-4284.
Tom Nissley, for the Ridgelea Reports on Theatre
April 5, 2013