By Patrick Hurley
The Group Rep is currently presenting the west coast premiere of Tiger By The Tail, which is playing now through April 19 at the Lonny Chapman Theatre. It’s a prison drama/love story about redemption, growth, and the nature of relationships. It confronts racial and homophobic stereotypes while exposing the egregious American prison system as being something you’d see on late night Cinemax. There’s bits of poetry and penis-shaped inkblots, and oh yeah, a surprise twist at the end of Act One. Of course there is. With all of its many ingredients this play falls victim to a very serious dramaturgical problem: It doesn’t know what it wants to be.
For all the time, and there is an extensive amount of it, that this play deals with its two main characters corresponding via written letter. And by corresponding, that is to say the two characters speak directly to the audience as they read the letters they’ve written to each other. It veers into many different directions. Jerry (Michael Taylor Gray) is a gay therapist living in Los Angeles who responds to a personal ad from the currently incarcerated Maynard (Michael O’Neil Callaghan). And as much as there could be a speck of believability in the idea that a therapist would pursue a romantic relationship with a convicted felon, one he’s never met, currently serving time on the other side of the country, this play throws believability out the window and portrays Jerry as a clichéd middle-aged gay man so desperate for a relationship that he will pursue Maynard at all costs. Playing upon the stereotype that no gay man in Los Angeles will date a forty-five year old, because they all want to date younger, hotter men.
That’s the main plot. Subplot number one deals with a Cuban prisoner named Alfredo (Marco Antonio Parra) a quick tempered and really angry guy, who always picks fights with the prison guards, who are of course uneducated and racist. Alfredo becomes the object of prison abuse. Perhaps to serve as an underlying theme of racial tension. Which ultimately highlights the issues with our prison system. Subplot number two deals with Marcus (Steven West) a physically large, slow-witted, gospel-singing inmate. A hardened criminal, yes, but with the innocence of a child. An innocence that gets taken from him in the plays most gratuitous scene. Again, bad prisons. Subplot number three deals with the character known as “The Criminal” (Dave Buzzotta), a convicted killer who is looking to correct his past by changing who he is and living a different future. That sounds vague, but at the risk of giving away too much, it’s best to leave it at that. Oh yeah, the criminal is also a poet, who tries to use his poetry to make changes in the prison system, to his own detriment.
The play shifts from a racist and homophobic episode of Oz, to a less articulate A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters. It deals with an impossible to believe protagonist, who, among other things, thinks decoding a poem and discovering a really easy-to-use rhyme scheme makes the author of that poem a brilliant poet. It insults the viewer that the playwright looked up how to write an ode, and then wrote one, and then called it brilliant. It would have worked, maybe, if the character claiming its brilliance were someone less educated than a therapist. As it is, it merely makes Jerry seem to be using a fallacious line of reasoning in order to confirm that his love for a prison inmate is meant to be. And that may be a weak device, literarily speaking.
Director Jules Aaron can’t really do much to this piece, and unfortunately he clearly believes that less is more. It’s as stiff as a plank of wood. He keeps most of the actors in one spot for too long. There’s no real life going on. When things do happen they’re simulated to a sometimes comical effect. There was no real danger felt in any of the fighting, and as for the “dog and pony show,” that was troublesome. For many reasons.
As the Criminal, Dave Buzzotta is solid. He rises far enough above the material to add the right amount of humanity. Unfortunately, he is not in the first Act of the play.
This play simply tries to be too many things, and it never settles on any of them. Playwright Frawley Becker has the makings of at least three plays here, and trying to push them all together, you end up with a slightly muddled, overlong piece that is always one step behind the audience. Because with so many things to say, the voice of the playwright is what comes through the characters, and instead of having the story speak for itself, the author is telling us what he wants us to know. And that, unfortunately, is less compelling theater.
Tiger By The Tail
By Frawley Becker
Directed by Jules Aaron
Through April 19
Lonny Chapman Theatre
10900 Burbank Blvd. North Hollywood 91601
www.thegrouprep.com or 818.763.5990