“Ride the Tiger” by William Mastrosimone at Long Wharf Theatre
by Zander Opper
“Ride the Tiger,” the excellent new play by William Mastrosimone, is currently being given a superb, perfectly cast production at Long Wharf Theatre. As masterfully directed by Gordon Edelstein, this play concerns the rise of John F. Kennedy, between the years of 1959 and 1963, and the various key people that were in his life at the time. Though the play is based on actual people and events (there’s even a timeline in the program), the playwright has filled “Ride the Tiger” with so much juicy drama and wit that you would be convinced that this was a fictional story that he concocted from his imagination. Led by the ideally cast Douglas Sills as JFK, this production is made up of a complex series of conversations and scenes that, thanks to director Edelstein and his brilliant designers (including, crucially, a projection designer), flow smoothly from one scene to another throughout the evening; indeed, this show seems to always be in constant motion. Add a dynamite group of actors who truly seem to be from the early 1960s, and “Race the Tiger” can be recommended as an enormously entertaining and intelligent evening of theatre.
Though this play is mostly male-dominated, it is the one female performer onstage who ultimately proves to be the most pivotal character in “Ride the Tiger.” Christina Bennett Lind (looking like she just stepped out of an episode of “Mad Men”) is terrific as Judith Campbell and it is notably her relationships with the three leading men in the play that provide the catalyst for much of the action. Lind is very beautiful and it is easy to see why all the male characters are immediately taken with her. And though she plays her early scenes coyly, almost innocently, her Judith is no fool; indeed, she may be the sharpest person onstage. Looking like a young Elizabeth Taylor, this actress’s sly performance cannot be underestimated: without her striking portrayal, a great deal of what happens in the play would not be nearly as persuasive as it is.
Also making a strong impression in “Ride the Tiger” is Douglas Sills as JFK. Previously seen as a marvelous leading man in musicals (notably as “The Scarlet Pimpernel”), Sills’ work in this play is superb and he makes a very believable John F. Kennedy, as he must have been in his private life. Complementing him as his father Joe is John Cunningham and their scenes together are riveting. As Frank Sinatra, Paul Anthony Stuart doesn’t try to make an impersonation of the star; instead, he is quite fine as a slick, savvy man who, when things takes a turn for the worse, eventually becomes something of a wounded soul. And it must be stated that Jordan Lage is downright scary and sleazy as Sam Giancana, representing the Mob, and he is very impressive in slowly insinuating himself into the outer circle of JFK’s presidency.
Director Gordon Edelstein keeps the action moving swiftly with the help of set designer Eugene Lee and the projection designer Sven Ortel, who can switch the action from a casino in Las Vegas, to a hotel room in Los Angeles, to, eventually, the oval office, simply with a change of projections on the back wall of the theatre. All of this is in keeping with the pungency and dark humor of William Mastrosimone’s writing and one of the greatest things about this production is that it is a seamless theatrical experience, with every element blending perfectly. “Ride the Tiger” must rank as a tremendously enjoyable and searing portrait of both political facts and the imagined conversations and events that took place behind closed doors, with the final image (not to be divulged here) being as chilling as it is inevitable. Tickets to “Ride the Tiger,” which continues through April 21st, can by ordered by calling (203) 787-4282 or by going to http://www.longwharf.org.