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A CurtainUp Connecticut Review
Ride the Tiger

I discovered that being President is like riding a tiger. A man has to keep on riding or be swallowed.— Harry S. Truman
Some people have hemorrhoids. I have Bobby.— Jack (JFK) complaining about his brother and campaign manager’s constant interruption of his private life.
Ride the Tiger
John Cunningham and Douglas Sills
William Mastrosimone’s new play, Ride the Tiger at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven is like an enactment of a Kennedy era tabloid publication. Based on gossipy stories, some fairly reliable and some conjecture.

It's about JFK’s political and personal involvement with “the Mob” during his 1960 presidential campaign. For political junkies, like myself, Mastrosimone’s work is fascinating fodder. For others, this will likely seem no more than another attempt at debunking the Hyannisport legend.

Depending on the depth of your political affiliation and/or your penchant for sordid tales about celebrities, you’ll either yawn at these old rumors or enjoy the sordid details. Though the characters in the play are known simply as Jack, Frank, Judy, Sam and Joe, there little attempt to disguise who’s who.

The focus of the play begins with the dicey extra-marital relationship JFK (Douglas Sills) struck up with Judith Campbell Exner (Christina Bennett Lind), a former girl friend of Frank Sinatra (Paul Anthony Steward), as well as a playmate of mobster Sam Giancana (Jordan Lage). In addition, and more significantly, the play explores Giancana’s role in the 1960 election and the Kennedy family’s efforts to keep their hands clean in the sub-rosa dealings.

A final coda suggests that perhaps the assassination in Dallas was the work of the mob. The Chicago criminal loathed Bobby Kennedy — “the weasel” — who was actively pursuing a vendetta with the mob and rumored to be JFK’ choice for Attorney General. Topping that he was almost off the wall in his hatred for Communism and Fidel Castro in particular. That passion was the key to getting him to bury the hatchet (temporarily) with Bobby so that JFK could win and “take out” Castro, something Giancana had already considered.

Prodded by Joseph Kennedy (John Cunningham), the ruthlessly ambitious patriarch of the Kennedy clan, Giancana used his influence over the labor unions to deliver the pivotal stage of West Virginia to JFK in the primaries thus insuring his nomination. While these backroom shenanigans were going on, JFK was often in the sack with Exner, if she wasn’t in bed with Giancana. Sinatra had apparently tired of her long before, though he introduced her to Kennedy.

To keep our attention high, the playwright drops celebrity names like Cockneys drop their “haights.” There's Ava, Marilyn and even “the queer.” — the Kennedys' term for J. Edgar Hoover.

Long Wharf has provided an evocative production which uses projections to switch the scene from Hyannisport to Las Vegas, to New York, Chicago and finally the oval office. Gordon Edelstein has directed with style and a quick pace. But . . . for all this heady stuff, things don’t jell dramatically. Although Sills gets Kennedy’s New England accent right and has his good looks, his Jack comes off as bland and almost entirely self centered rather than the charismatic hero of Camelot. The script makes him seem even more obsessed with sex than the most randy rumors of the day suggested. “Jack” says at one point that if he doesn’t have sex every day he gets a headache!

Jordan Lage steals the show as Giancana. Despite the fact that we’re told Sam only has an I.Q. of 70 and is close to being a Cro-Magnon mass murderer, Lage turns him into a glib, charming, sexy, intelligent guy. In a funny, spun-out scene where he comes on to Judy, he is altogether winning. You know something’s wrong when the bad guy not only gets all the laughs but you’re also rooting for him to get the gal.

Hind is faced with the unfortunate task of convincing us she’s a femme fatal that could turn the heads of Sinatra, Kennedy and Giancana. She’s a lovely actress and imbues the part with innocence and emotional neediness but sultry she’s not – nor is she able to conjure up the illusive mystery demanded. She has a moment of full frontal nudity that might have been included to justify the passions that drove this romantic triangle, but there’s more to magic than transparency.

Stewart is on target as Sinatra, nailing the singer’s laid back, happily jaded persona, and Cunningham works hard as the elder Kennedy. He’s stuck, however, with being the story’s dramaturg, filling us in on the Kennedy history from his point of view, which like most everything else in this play is open for debate.

Note: Ride the Tiger was titled Dirty Business when first seen in 2008 at Florida Stage in Manalapan, Florida.

Ride the Tiger by William Mastrosimone
Directed by Gordon Edelstein
Cast: John Cunningham (Joe), Douglas Sills (Jack), Paul Anthony Stewart (Frank), Christina Bennett Lind (Judy), Jordan Lage (Sam), Barbara Hentschel, Kenneth Murray (Valets).
Set design: Eugene Lee
Costume design: Jess Goldstein
Lighting design: Tyler Micoleau
Original music and sound design: Ryan Rumery
Projection design: Sven Ortel
Production stage manager: Lisa Ann Chernoff
Assistant stage manager: Amy Patricia Stern Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including one 15 minute intermission
Long Wharf Theatre New Haven, Ct. Call 203-787-4282
Through April 21.
Tuesday through Saturday at 8 p.m.; matinees Saturday at 2, Sunday at 3.
Tickets are $40 - $70.
Reviewed by Chesley Plemmons at the Sunday, April 14 matinee.
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