Jack Kennedy died for his sins. That’s one of the messages of Ride the Tiger, an entertaining behind-the-scenes take on Kennedy’s affair with Judith Exner, playing at Long Wharf Theater through April 21.
Playwright William Mastrosimone was inspired to write the play after interviewing Frank Sinatra. “At one point in our history, the president of the United States was having affair with a woman who was having an affair with the head of the Chicago mafia,” Mastrosimone recounts in the Long Wharf press release. “Any playwright who heard that idea would say that they are writing that play.”
From this historical oddity, Mastrosimone imagines the interpersonal and political implications of a love/friendship quadrangle of Kennedy, Frank Sinatra, mobster Sam Giancana and their shared lover, Exner.
On the surface, Ride the Tiger is a charming light comedy with familiar accents (both stereotypical Italian-American and Irish-Boston). But the show delivers more than mid-century sex repartee (though it does that, too). It deftly parallels the paths the characters take to reach their positions of power and influence. The contrasts between Kennedy’s second-generation Palm Beach pedigree and Giancana’s street tough mobster flavors the proceedings with a touch of classic drama. Joe Kennedy’s street tough bootlegger-once-removed (the fine but too-slight John Cunningham) is tossed in to remind us that only a few years separate the elitist from the thug.
Exner, played smartly by a well-costumed Christina Bennett Lind (click here to read Allan Appel’s interview with her about the role), is the vixen who enraptures each of these men. Sinatra tires of her and hands her off to a smitten JFK, who, on the campaign trail in 1960, is so busy that he leaves an opening for Giancana. The upshot: Giancana has leverage on “Sissy Loafers,” Giancana’s pet name for the young flamboyant soon-to-be president.
To head off a potential scandal, the too-clever JFK sics his attorney general brother on the mob. The law of the street mandates that Giancana hit back, and the rest is Dealey Plaza history. If only Jack had been faithful …
Ride the Tiger is the second time bigger-than-life legends have been portrayed on a Long Wharf stage this season. The theater’s opener, Satchmo at the Waldorf, captured Louis Armstrong at his last live performance. The actor, John Thompson, transformed himself into the master trumpeter, and, in a few scenes, became Miles Davis. In both cases the metamorphosis was both in demeanor and voice.
Ride the Tiger avoids such mimicry. Doug Sills is a terrific actor – I’ve seen him in musical theater as the dentist in Little Shop of Horrors on Broadway and in She Loves You at the Westport Country Playhouse. Here, he works at the pahk-your-cah cadence, but somehow doesn’t capture JFK’s effervescence. It’s hard to imagine that you’re watching the man who captivated a generation. Paul Anthony Stewart’s young-looking Sinatra kicks off the role emitting a sense of the crooner’s cool, but by the end of the show he somehow lost any sense of Ol’ Blue Eyes’ magic. He, too, doesn’t much conjure the actual Frankie, and he’s a bit too easily turned into a weasel by Giancana (a fiery and energetic Paul Anthony Stewart, putting just a little too much goom-bah into his Chicago mobster voice).
One gets the impression that director Gordon Edelstein opted not to reach too hard for visually authentic physical character cues, save for JFK’s notorious back brace. It’s a reminder that the play is conjured from Mastrosimone’s imagination based on what we know about the real-life personalities, but that it isn’t purporting to portray historical conversations. Still it was a little bit harder to suspend disbelief when you try to see Jack Kennedy on Doug Sills’ face.
The program notes quotes a loosely translated Chinese proverb that says, “One you climb the tiger, it’s hard to get off.” An apt title for the show:the Impact of powerful men riding tigers that they can’t get off, is a simple and elegant encapsulation of what Edelstein and Mastrosimone are up to. And not without a little but of fun and some knowing winks as well.