Ride The Tiger
By David A. Rosenberg
When scene changes are the most fascinating part of a theater experience, you know you’re in trouble. So it is with William Mastrosimone’s new “Ride the Tiger” at Long Wharf, which has more furniture than a Hilton Hotel. And no wonder, what with settings ranging from Las Vegas to Florida, the Oval Office and various bedrooms. It’s a bevy of places worthy of a TV program, which “Tiger” resembles. (The title comes from a Harry Truman quotation about the difficulties of being president.)
Mastrosimone authored the highly charged “Extremities,” in which a woman turns the tables on her would-be rapist. This time he lasers onto a hot topic -- the peccadilloes of John Fitzgerald Kennedy before and during office and leading up to his assassination -- focusing on the notorious affair between the future president and moll Judith Campbell Exner. Her position as go-between JFK and mob boss Sam Giancana, while having simultaneous affairs with both, is eventually her undoing as they turn the tables on her.
It’s a potentially explosive, though stale, situation that Mastrosimone treats as a high-class soap opera, complete with conniving dad, pimp crooner, female nudity and a boatload of obscenities. The setup is Giancana’s obtaining the union vote for JFK and expecting some sort of payback.
When JFK’s brother Robert declares racketeering Public Enemy No. 1, that is not the kind of payback Sam imagined. Swearing revenge, he causes havoc that shall not be revealed here, although it’s worthy of an Oliver Stone flick.
In scenes of numbing repetition, Judith seesaws between the rivals, carrying messages when not cavorting in bed or on the floor. Since Mastrosimone once wrote a mini-series about Frank Sinatra, when, according to a program note, “Ol’ Blue Eyes himself told Bill the story on which he based his play,” one credits him with passing on juicy TMZ-type gossip. To call it “sordid” is mild.
Mastrosimone does have a sharp pen, giving most of the colorful lines to the rough Giancana. And Jordan Lage runs with them in a performance filled with amoral vitriol. “We all get punished,” he says, “for being somebody’s patsy.”
Opposing him in class and intelligence is JFK. When Sam says, “A favor is an IOU signed in blood,” Jack’s rejoinder is “Where I come from we use ink.” Unfortunately, Douglas Sills is not up to the role of the president. Although he’s done excellent work elsewhere, here he not only lacks charisma but his tirades are phony.
Paul Anthony Stewart struggles to make Frank personable, while Christina Bennett Liind barely suggests the carnal hold Judith must have had on men. Only John Cunningham as the conniving, ambitious Joe Kennedy creates a character out of whole cloth: his scenes with Sills are the evening’s best.
Director Gordon Edelstein cannot meld the evening’s disparate parts. Nor does he breathe life into these boring and unpleasant characters.
Thus we fall back on the scene changes and Barbara Hentschel, one of the factotums who not only bring on and take off props but shove furniture around. Her every appearance has more pizzazz and insouciance than anybody else’s.
“Ride the Tiger” is at Long Wharf Theater, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven, through April 21. Call (203) 787-4282 or visit longwharf.org
in The Hour, April 11, 2013