‘Ride the Tiger’: Did Sam Giancana have JFK whacked?

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Director Gordon Edelstein has pulled together an ultra-stylish production of the William Mastrosimone play “Ride the Tiger,” that just opened at Long Wharf Theatre.

The political drama takes place between 1960 and 1963, and through the use of vivid projection design by Sven Ortel and sleek set pieces by Eugene Lee, Edelstein lends a cinematic feeling to this tale of the ties between government, show business and organized crime in the “Camelot” era of JFK.

Mastrosimone did not write this play to praise Jack Kennedy, but to explore the seamy underbelly of the playboy senator-turned-president’s amoral, debauched life.

The JFK of “Ride the Tiger” is a puppet whose strings are pulled by Old Man Kennedy — ex-rum rummer and Hollywood studio chief Joe — who will do just about anything to push his family into the highest office in the land. The play argues that JFK was a shallow substitute for his older brother, Joe, who was being groomed for politics when he died in World War II.

Mastrosimone repeats the long-held canard that young Joe took on a suicide mission in Europe out of jealousy — Jack had just gotten a lot of attention from his adventures on P.T. 109 and Joe was determined to top him.

There is a sleazy brio to the play’s unabashed presentation of the deals the elder Kennedy made with two devils — king of show business Frank Sinatra and Chicago crimelord Sam Giancana — to win the tricky Middle American primaries that Jack needed to get the Democratic nomination in Los Angeles in the summer of 1960.

“Ride the Tiger” keeps Jackie offstage but she is presented cynically as a political beard — i.e. the perfect politician’s wife and a woman who didn’t care that her husband was a flagrant adulterer.

Mastrosimone’s ideas hold water — and are probably closer to the truth than many official histories — but as a piece of drama, the play is often unfocused and unbalanced. (It also suffers in comparison with the high-water mark in Kennedy-trashing set by the 1974 Richard Condon novel “Winter Kills” and the subsequent film version in 1979.)

There are only five characters on stage — Jack (Douglas Sills), Joe (John Cunningham), Frank (Paul Anthony Stewart), serial mistress Judy Exner (Christina Bennet Lind) and Sam (Jordan Lage) — so each carries a lot of weight that the writing and performances aren’t able to sustain, with one exception.

As Sam Giancana, Jordan Lage projects so much menace, street smarts and unexpected sex appeal that he walks off with the whole show.

The action is fairly evenly divided between the Kennedy and Frank sequences, and Sam’s moments, but Jack is presented so pallidly that we are not surprised when Judy decides to divide her time between the soon-to-be-president and the mob boss.

I’m sure that there is much truth in the notion that Jack took many of his marching orders from Joe, but he also had a public energy and charisma that helped get him elected in a tight race. The stage Jack is a self-pitying bore.

John Cunningham is a fabulous actor with notable stage credits spanning the last 40 years, but he doesn’t seem right for the down-and-dirty, wheeling-dealing Joe. He looks more like a character out of an A.R. Gurney play than an Irish Catholic power player. The conception and the performance don’t hold a candle to John Huston’s take on the same character in “Winter Kills.”

Paul Anthony Stewart labors under the terrible burden of playing one of the greatest stars in the history of American show business. We all “knew” Frank Sinatra and Stewart is no Frank Sinatra.

Lage has the advantage of playing the least known real-life figure in “Ride the Tiger” but he takes that advantage and runs with it in a rousing performance that makes you forget — temporarily — that the other men on stage are so humdrum. He is a complete reason for making a trip to Long Wharf between now and April 21.

Joe Meyers

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