I grew up in a household where John F. Kennedy was more or less a sainted martyr, and where Frank Sinatra—when he was with Tommy Dorsey—was looked upon as the soundtrack of my parents’ romantic years. And where The Godfather was appreciated as a kind of all-American story of every immigrant family’s need to band together in the face of prejudice from the larger community. My parents weren’t Italian or Irish (ok, a little), but they were Catholic, and so, from the start, I was prepared to be entertained by a play—William Mastrosimone’s Ride the Tiger, now playing at the Long Wharf Theatre, directed by Gordon Edelstein—that brings together JFK, Frankie, and the Mob. I might also mention that the play begins in the year of my birth. I might also suggest that the play will probably strike a chord even with audiences who don’t have the fond regard for these figures and their era that I inherited—the early, pre-Beatles Sixties got a big spike in popularity after Mad Men debuted, and the romance of the era seems not to have faded quite yet. Perhaps that’s one of the “tigers” Mastrosimone is intentionally riding. And you could, y’know, take that more than one way. As used in the play, the phrase indicates those dangerous pacts we make in order to get somewhere—running the risk of not being able to direct things for long. This is a play all about deals made and expectations betrayed. As such, it rides the tiger of a certain romance of America that some of us claim as our birthright. Can we climb down off that tiger without getting hurt? And if the tiger we’re riding is our own sense of historical necessity?
The play has much to recommend it: Eugene Lee uses a loose and easily adaptable set that can be the Oval office one minute and a poolside lounge another; there’s a bed to cavort in, a car drives onto the stage, and there are backdrop projections of Vegas, the White House and even a doctored “Mount Rushmore” of presidential portraits (sneaking in “the other Roosevelt,” kinda roguishly). Jess Goldstein’s costumes are for the most part lounge lizard casual, with Christina Bennett Lind, as Judy (the main female role), boasting the kind of form-fitting dresses that made girdles a necessary evil of the era for many. The action is episodic—letting us feel like voyeurs, eavesdroppers or bugs able to soak up conversations and encounters that go by terms like “clandestine,” “hush-hush,” “behind the scenes,” and “entre nous.” The fact that every major character here—except Judy—is (or was) a household name makes it all delicious dirt.
Edelstein trusts the material and lets the talk run the show with little gimmickry. We’ve got Joe (John Cunningham), very patrician as the Bostonian Irish patriarch trying to launch a political dynasty. Cunningham is quite adept at registering both the steely convictions of the man as well as the fact that, face it, he’s mostly past his prime. It’s all riding on second son Jack (Douglas Sills), a war hero and ladies’ man trying hard to do what must be done. Sills nails some lines with the familiar Kennedy delivery but his character is somewhat underwritten in the early going; he comes off better in the second half where he makes Jack’s rage both frightened and fearsome and lets us see Jack try vainly to be winning via the famed Kennedy wit while being an obvious asshole.
Then there’s Jack’s pal, Frank (Paul Anthony Stewart), the Italian singing sensation from Hoboken who is a key linchpin: he gets Joe cozy with Chicago Cosa Nostra via a political favor involving the Mob’s control of Unions, and he introduces Jack to Judy, the play’s resident femme fatale, who Frankie ditches in a scene Stewart makes redolent of Rat Pack chutzpah. Things are pretty hunky dory until the main Mob guy, Sam (Jordan Lage), takes a shine to Judy, and, eventually, tires of the high hat he’s handed by Jack and his brother Bobby (aka “the Weasel”) once the White House is gained and favors from unsavory types are best forgotten. Someone’s cruising for a bruising, and let’s just say no one gets out of this thing unscathed.
The real stunner in this line-up is Lage as Sam: he’s a charming ladies’ man, an unstoppable font of chat, a barrage of little tics and moves, and, when it’s time for the eyes to go icy dead, Lage is your boy. We’ve all seen (I imagine) this kind of Wise Guy in any number of films about Chicago gangsters, but Lage’s Sam is also very much a creature of this moment: Ol’ Blue Eyes is back, a Catholic boy is gonna be president, and Khrushchev is in for a big surprise. For Sam, who reads newspapers religiously, the only thing that could make the world sweeter is if Castro would get a fatal calling card. It’s an entertaining and thrilling portrayal.
Another strength is Lind’s Judy—she harkens to that era when a girl with a head on her shoulders might not get a professional post, but, with enough looks and je ne sais quoi, might manage to position herself in an exciting, and exhausting and, finally, frightening triangle with two extremely powerful and headstrong men. Judy bounces along from Frank to Jack to Jack and Sam to a paranoid funk, finally losing those can-do “high hopes” so important to an It Girl’s self-esteem. The best part of the play are the overlaps when Judy goes back and forth between Jack and Sam as the two duel verbally through messages she must deliver. The late scene of her breakdown seems a bit thin—which is true of her character all along, but you don’t notice so much until she’s given a scene that seems to scream for a revealing statement. Instead we get revealing nudity.
As a meditation on figures of American romance gazed upon for their history-making status and larger-than-life pretensions—Politicians! Entertainers! Gangsters!—Ride the Tiger mixes up a potent cocktail, though you’ll be stirred more than shaken. The play is not playing it all for laughs so much as laughing up its sleeve. Mastrosimone cleverly cherry-picks the historical record to slant the action toward its conclusion—which arrives as both a laugh and a shock. It’s surprising—in its execution—and inevitable in its action, which makes it a satisfying note to end on. Everyone in this play has a one-way date with destiny and Mastrosimone gets a lot of mileage out of that tiger and this wild ride.
Ride the Tiger By William Mastrosimone Directed by Gordon Edelstein
Set Design: Eugene Lee; Costume Design: Jess Goldstein; Lighting Design: Tyler Micoleau; Original Music and Sound Design: Ryan Rumery; Projection Design: Sven Ortel; Wig Design: Charles Lapointe; Casting: James Calleri, CSA; Production Stage Manager: Lisa Ann Chernoff; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern
Photos by T. Charles Erickson, courtesy of the Long Wharf Theatre
Long Wharf Theatre March 27-April 21, 2013