|Douglas Sills, Jordan Lage, Christina Bennett Lind. Photo: T. Charles Erickson|
By Lauren Yarger
President Jack Kennedy’s challenge to ask what you can do for your country usually evokes thoughts of public service, protecting our borders or dying to protect freedom. In William Mastrosimone’s play Ride the Tiger at Long Wharf Theatre, the answers are a bit more complicated.
For Kennedy (Douglas Sills), the answer is allowing his father, Joe (John Cunningham) to run his life, including choosing his friends, wife and career. For Jack’s friend, Frank Sinatra (Paul Anthony Stewart), the answer is acting as an intermediary with mob boss Sam (Jordan Lage) to secure the union vote to make a Catholic Kennedy’s run for the White House possible. Sam also sends ex-girlfriend Judy (Christina Bennett Lind) over to help sex-addicted Jack with his needs. Judy’s service to her country includes getting into bed with all three men.
Before you think this is just another lone-woman character written to provide some sexual relief for the more developed male characters in a testosterone-laden play, you should know that Mastrosimone bases Judy on a real-life Judith Campbell Exner who had relationships with the president, Old Blue Eyes and Sam Giancana. The playwright wrote an award-winning TV miniseries on Sinatra’s Life and based this story on one told to him by Sinatra himself, Director Gordon Edelstein says in his program notes. (Edelstein doesn’t explain why he chooses to have Judy unnecessarily nude in a couple of scenes, but that is a topic for another “women’s issues” conversation.)
The title comes from a quote from Harry S. Truman: “I discovered that being a President is like riding a tiger. A man has to keep on riding or be swallowed.”
That proves true for young Jack, too. Joe manipulates him into the primaries after the eldest Kennedy son, Joe Jr. -- and the patriarch’s first hope to establish a dynasty – dies. Joe arranges Jack’s marriage and seals a business deal with Jacqueline to keep her at her husband’s side through their time in the White House. He counsels his son about his extramarital affairs (instructing him to pay off Judy) and asks Frank to go to Sam about the unions so no one can link Jack directly to the mob. Then he tells Jack to drop Frank from his friend’s list.
Cunningham gives an intriguing performance as the overbearing head of the Kennedy clan, both as an energetic legend builder and later, as the wheel-chair-bound victim of a stroke.
Adding some humor to the mostly political and darker side to these characters is Lage. Sam “owns” Chicago and is somewhere between psychotic and genius, but the one thing he can’t control is his obsession with Judy. He is interested, but she’s not because of her involvement with Jack, so he offers her friendship and lots of expensive jewelry gifts, but remains a perfect gentleman throughout much of their relationship. Eventually Judy gives in, but has to wonder whether Sam, who turns out not to be such a “gentle” man, has ulterior motives for wanting to be involved with the president’s mistress.
Sills uses a bit of a Harvard accent, but except for donning a back brace, doesn’t project the image of Kennedy we’ve come to feel we know: charismatic, charming and confident – the kind of guy who would turn the head of someone like Marilyn Monroe. Lind does a nice job of toggling between a woman driven by her emotions, a woman attracted to power and a woman trying to survive. Stewart is convincing as a young Frank.
Various settings from the Kennedys’ Hyannis beach home to the White House depict the action from 1959 to 1963 through clever use of projections (Sven Ortel, design) on a backdrop and simple props and furniture (Eugene Lee, set design) place by “valets” listed in the program as Barbara Hentschel and Kenneth Murray, who also get costumes from Designer Jess Goldstein. The scene transitions are enhanced by original music and sound design by Ryan Rumery, though some could be cut. The script, which runs two and a half hours could stand a rather large trim.
The Tiger rides through April 21 on Long Wharf Theatre's mainstage. Performance times vary. Tickets are $40-$70: 203-787-4282; www.longwharf.org.
For a video from the show, visit http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vOpnRavwkY8.