Tiger by the Tail
Reviewed by Martin Hernandez
The Group Rep at Lonny Chapman Theatre
Through April 19
In Frawley Becker’s absorbing drama, a middle-aged Los Angeles psychologist, against his professional judgment but drawn by an alluring photograph, answers a personal ad in a gay magazine from a 20- something Florida prison inmate. Separated by bars and 2400 miles, Jerry (Michael Taylor Gray) soon begins a correspondence with the “boyishly handsome” Maynard (Michael O’Neil Callaghan), who is scheduled for release in a few months. Jerry finds solace in Maynard’s letters and earnest poems while Jerry’s missives give Maynard hope for finding love with an “older gentlemen.”
As time passes, their exchanges, including dreamlike conversations between them, reveal long held secrets that hold more eloquence when put down on paper. We see the scope of Maynard’s compassion as he intervenes to protect his fellow convicts Marcus (Steven West), an imposing but gentle giant whose “head went bad”; and Alfredo (Marco Antonio Parra), a take-no-shit Cuban, from the sadistic prison guard Kelly (Bob McCollum), who also has a special interest in tormenting Maynard. When Jerry starts digging into Maynard’s history, he starts to question Maynard’s motives as well as whether he is gay. Kelly, after a brutal altercation with another of the inmates, ups the ante on Maynard. And when another prisoner, The Criminal (Dave Buzzotta), threatens to come between Jerry and Maynard, the star-crossed pair’s plans for connecting may just go off the tracks.
Director Jules Aaron draws engaging performances from his cast, most notably Gray, Callaghan, Buzzotta and West, while his staging flows seamlessly between Jerry’s office to the inmates’ cells and other locales. Aaron also has a deft touch with the abundant humor in Becker’s play, such as Jerry’s sparring with his therapist Peter (Lloyd Pedersen) and the banter between Jerry, Maynard and The Criminal. “What good is mental health when you’re alone?” asks one character at one point and while we may not get the answer here, it is a question playwright Becker feels is worth pondering.
The Group Rep at the Lonny Chapman Theatre, 10900 Burbank Blvd., N. Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through April 19.(818) 763-5990, www.thegrouprep.com.