NEW HAVEN — Back in the day, I knew a fellow who got it into his head that what he really wanted was a PhD in math, despite the fact that he had taken no math in college whatsoever. He asked his father for help, counting on the fact that Dad, a mild mannered lawyer, had grown up in a tough neighborhood with some big-time Chicago gangsters. His father made a phone call to one of them, asking for a favor…
“No problem” croaked the old friend. He then telephoned the president of a nearby university, asking, in a reasonable tone: “Do you want all trucking deliveries to your campus to be interrupted by perpetual strikes and breakdowns? If not, please admit this young man to your graduate mathematics program.”
Three years later, the son graduated with honors and went on to become a math professor.
In much the same way — and set around the same time — William Mastrosimone’s Ride The Tiger depicts Joe Kennedy seeking mob help to gain the Democratic Presidential nomination for his son Jack. Believing it was necessary to defeat rival Hubert Humphrey in a Protestant state (to dispel the notion that JFK was merely a Catholic candidate), the senior Kennedy uses Frank Sinatra as a go-between, asking mob boss Sam Giacana to order the trade unions (which were controlled by organized crime) to support JFK in the West Virginia primary.
The strategy worked, but in Mastrosimone’s vision it was the beginning of a Faustian bargain, that would ultimately lead to tragedy. Central to the plot, however, is a beautiful young woman named Judith Campbell, an ex-squeeze of Sinatra, who became the mistress of both JFK and Giacana, at the same time.
Giacana hoped the arrangement would be useful, seeing Judy as a conduit to the President’s ear. While not asking for an invitation to dinner, he expected that Jack would restrain his Attorney General brother Bobby’s relentless prosecution of organized crime. When that didn’t happen, well, we’ve all seen The Godfather…
Originally premiering in Florida in 2008 under the title Dirty Business, Mastrosimone’s play is currently receiving its second production at Long Wharf, under the guidance of Gordon Edelstein, as part of a dedicated plan by the theater to encourage development by giving playwrights the chance to polish a work after it has been staged.
The new title refers to a Chinese proverb that warns “Once you climb the tiger, it’s hard to get off,” as well as Harry Truman’s observation that “Being President is like riding a tiger. A man has to keep on riding or be swallowed.” In accepting that first favor which brought him victory in West Virginia, Kennedy was climbing onto a tiger that would be harder for him to control than he ever imagined.
Those of us who are old enough to remember the meteoric rise and abrupt fall of JFK were shocked and heartbroken on that day in November 1963. We were even more confused in the aftermath, by the miasma of conjecture and allegations that surrounded his death, as well as by the conflict between the adoring myth of the bonny golden prince of Camelot, and the sordid revelations that slowly leaked out.
Whole forests have been sacrificed to produce the voluminous publications dedicated to “proving” that Lee Harvey Oswald was not acting alone. Conspiracy theories spread like wildfire, asserting that the CIA set it up, Castro was responsible (revenge for the failed hit), Khrushchev and the KGB were behind it (to save face after the Soviets backed down), LBJ arranged it so he could succeed to the presidency without having to wait another whole term, and finally, “The Mob” was out to get even with the Kennedy’s for the Justice Department’s aggressive campaign against them.
Without weighing in on behalf of any of the above scenarios, it is possible to enjoy the play as stunningly staged, beautifully acted piece of dramatic craftsmanship. Eugene Lee’s set design uses simple basic furniture against a backdrop of continually changing visuals, conveying by turns Hyannisport, Las Vegas, Miami Beach, New York, Palm Beach, Los Angeles, Chicago and The Oval Office.
John Cunningham’s Joe Kennedy is as sinister a figure as any gangster, ready to use any and everyone in his way as a means to his end. Thwarted in his dream of being President himself, he is determined that one of his sons reach the White House.
Douglas Sills portrays Jack as a man who is deeply flawed, but honest about his limitations. His trouble comes when he imagines that his role as President insulates him from responsibility. Backed up by the trappings of office he begins to think that he will be protected from any consequences of his personal behavior.
Christina Bennett Lind plays Judy as an amiable, beautiful, and exceedingly dim-witted young woman who had no idea that the man who showered her with lavishly expensive jewelry and furs was a criminal, and who assumed that the Senator who sneaked her into his hotel room intended her to become his eventual second “first lady.”
Paul Anthony Stewart’s Frank Sinatra is a seething, tightly wound guy who understands the vast distance separating Hyannis from Hoboken. He genuinely likes and admires JFK, but he has to choose sides. He doesn’t sing himself, but Ryan Rumery’s original music and sound design make ample use of Old Blue Eyes’ voice to set the mood.
Finally, Jordan Lage steals the show as Sam Giacana. A veteran of many plays and movies by David Mamet, he bristles with explosive intensity and yet is capable of turning on seductive charm when he wants to. He made a much more attentive lover for Judy than JFK did, and at times it seemed like he would have been a more effective President, at least in the early scenes before he gets mean.
It didn’t really happen this way. So what? Maybe Richard III didn’t really kill those little princes in the Tower, but it made Crookback such a wicked villain that we don’t call Shakespeare a fabulist, we call him a great playwright. Mastrosimone may not be great, but he’s certainly good, and the show was highly enjoyable.
(Performances continue on The Claire Tow Stage in Long Wharf’s C. Newton Schenck III Theatre until April 21.
Visit LongWharf.org or call 203-787-4282 for additional information and reservations.)