Seeing the Dallas Theater Center’s Jack Ruby, Ail-American Boy for the second time last month, we were reminded of a classic carnival cliche, the straw-hatted guy with the three shells and the little pea.
“Now take this little pea. This little roly-poly pearl, and put it under the shell. Note the she 1 ladies and gentlemen . . . the shell with the curly top. Watch closely . . like so.”
You know the rest. The hands smoothly swish the shells from left to right, right to left, in a dazzling display of dexterous delight. When they stop we make our choice.
“Wrong. Sorry, son.”
The pea is gone. You won’t find it under any of the shells. It’s on the ground, underneath his foot.
Jack Ruby, All-American Boy a shell game? That’s right. Truckloads of razzle-dazzle, glittering lights and bundles of bangles. Our heads are pulled back and forth, up and down. Look over there. No, over there. See that? What? What’s the girl doing up on the scaffold? What does that projection say? Who’s, that behind the scrim? What does it all mean?
We are never sure. Instead of being nudged, pulled and inexorably led to an utter, final conclusion that stuns us, opens our eyes and waves us into the night tightly clutching some new Truth, Jack Ruby tells us up front what the Truth is going to be, and then lulls us with grand spectacle into thinking we’ve been told. We are overwhelmed, bounced off all those blinking, brightly-lit and collage-hung walls. We are bombarded with a scattering sehrapnel of symbols and easy mini-statements about not-so-easy subjects: America, Dallas, Ruby, being Jewish, the assassination.
Awed by the way our focus andattention are maneuvered, we can’tfind the pea, the meat and meaning ofthe play and the man. We are left dullof eye, dropping our empty shell, ameaningless prize. There’s nothingreally there. In Juck Ruby, the maneuver becomes the message-instead of that which we aremaneuvered to.
What is this play trying to tell us? If we are to believe that Ruby was little more than fate’s victim, of what use are the scattered nuances of a put-up job? If we are to go along with the “plot” theory, why the heavy focus on the hand of fate? If we are to be convinced that there is no way to ever really know what happened, then the confusion should be presented clearly.
And what of this “all-American boy” business? Was Ruby a twisted metaphor for the American Dream, the ethos inherent in us all? Was he some kind of bizarre American hero? Or martyr? Or what?
The play simply never takes a stand on the matters it claims it will. The problems and controversy and universal Truths surrounding Jack Ruby are hinted at, but never deeply and prudently explored. Fear and panic, pain and emotion, conspiracy and dark threats are briefly flashed before our eyes, then whisked out of sight before any damage is done. Menace is coated with sugar. We are safe because hints can be forgotten, glossed over, ignored. We can fall back on the spectacle and say. “Yeah, I saw Jack Ruby. It was something. Just like he shot him on TV the first time, only better.”
The trauma and neurosis of Dallas during those stormy years is only touched upon. The predictable cliches are trotted on – the Adlai Stevenson and Lyndon Johnson debacles, name dropping, and so on – but they never really create a meaningful backdrop for Ruby.
Jack Ruby is a legerdemain masquerading as the real thing. It is a conglomeration of all the visual and audile tricks and elements of play-making. Individually, many are strikingly handled.
Managing Director Paul Baker di-rected this production and his stamp is constantly visible, influencing playwright John Logan’s script to the point where he, Baker, receives partial credit for the script. The Paul Baker touch is not without power and scope. He has proved that time and again. Disparate images flash at the corners of our eyes, adding and building impressions and mood, excitement and humor. Moments are built to the nth degree, and statements obviously important to Baker emerge. Unfortunately, the moments are too often unconnected, many existing of and for themselves, leaving the audience wondering just what each has to do with the other. Somehow, scene after scene seems to say, “Baker, Baker, Baker” instead of “Ruby, Ruby, Ruby”.
Balancing the jangle of scenes, one thread runs through the play. Ken Latimer looked, and for all we know, sounded like Jack Ruby. The role is an obvious challenge. Too many people knew Ruby for Latimer to get by with tricks and fakery. In spite of what we felt were definite weaknesses in the script and the ever present danger of being swept off the stage by the spectacle surrounding him, Latimer gave us a consistently honest performance. He showed us a complete Jack Ruby – the hard-shelled, warm-hearted, confused and emotional whole man.
Randy Moore as P.T., the Man for All Seasons of the play, demonstrated once again his versatility in a number of roles. Outstanding were his portrayals of a seedy night club m.c. and a quick change sequence as he played four or five man-on-the-street scenes with Latimer. Later in the show, we felt his characterizations of an overly pompous mayor and a minister lacked the menace their speeches should have conveyed.
Herman Wheatley as Willard the bartender was believable every moment he was on stage. Wheatley and Latimer played off and with each other very well, and it was during their understated and realistic scenes that the play came closest to providing meaningful insights into the tough little manager of the Carousel Club.
Cindy McHugh’s delightful take-off on a well-known real stripper’s routine was the crowning glory of the end of Act I. Earlier, Chastity Fox played Chastity Fox. She was there to strip, and although she wasn’t nearly as sexy as she can be, strip she did.
The remainder of Ruby’s girls did little but determinedly flaunt their collective fannies to the fore. They needed lessons in hardness and didn’t quite convince us they were really the dumb, swivel-hipped, gum-chewing B-girls they pretended to be.
The rest of the cast of thousands ranged from troupers to troopers. Unfortunately, many of the minor characters are never around long enough to be of much use. We barely get to know them before they’re gone. And we need them. We need re-occurring characters to better emphasize Ruby’s many facets. As it is, most flash across the stage and disappear, hardly influencing him one way or the other. We are given a Ruby in a vacuum, a Brownian movement of one.
On a larger scale, the play seems to be three one acts trying to get a grip on each other. The first act is quite good. Logan and Baker caught the feel and style of the Carousel Club, Ruby and his daily hassles and woes. When, at the close of the Act, Ruby triumphantly utters, “Now, that’s what I call class!” it is a wonderful and revealing moment.
Act II is a meandering stream. New characters are introduced, but by the time we identify with, adjust to, and accept these new faces, half their scenes are gone. Kennedy is killed and the pressure starts to build. Ruby sees Oswald for the first time – and doesn’t even react to him. Hardly a basis for what comes later. To take the place of emotion, he tells us what he felt. A poor substitute for the real thing. We are left with little more than a patchwork path of revealed fate that supposedly leads poor Jack to that moment so many of us saw, the moment of the terrible ticket selling deed.
The killing of Oswald builds us up… for a letdown. The slow motion, the tension, the fact that we all know what’s going to happen, all prepares us for what will surely be the most awesome scene in the play. Anyone who has experienced Baker’s handling of Duncan’s murder in Macbeth-the stage bathed in blood, the audience bound in terrible cacophony, the horror of the assassination – would expect nothing less. Ready to be stunned, we were only lightly slapped. The re-enactment was faithful, and yet after an hour and a half of spectacle, this was the one moment where we didn’t get enough.
Act IIA is missing. In this missing act, Ruby tries to understand what he has done. He attempts to fit the deed into the context of himself, the Kennedy family and the nation. He rationalizes, agonizes over his motives. Why did he do it? Even, did he do it?
He is subjected to the tremendous pressures of the interrogators. Doctors, psychiatrists, FBI and CIA tear at him with a million questions. He learns he has conveniently come down with a case of cancer – a lot of that going around, don’t you know. He discovers plots and conspiracies. His head is turned inside out and put back together again, helter-skelter. His mental state declines and the metamorphosis is complete. The Great American Dream is shattered, replaced only by doubt and dis-orientation. We are now prepared for the last rites of Act III. Right? Wrong. Remember? Act IIA is missing.
And therein lies the big problem with Act III. And another major problem with the whole play. We’ve missed the destruction of the dream. We have jumped from dream to denouement and skipped the climax, the nightmare of the baring of the soul of Jack Ruby. And so, presumably, our souls. We’ve been taken on a short cut.
Latimer has fine moments in the third act as he teeters on the edge of awareness. Stunned, not knowing what hit him, he can’t make the bits and pieces of his life fit together anymore. He wants to tell his story, wants to tell about the lovely dream he had. Wants to explain – even though he probably can’t- why he did it. But no one will listen. He has been destroyed. Only the hulk is left.
The act suffers from an overdose of staging. Jackboots on the catwalk, peripheral beatings, a screaming mother on the scaffolding – are all meant to expand the images and totally immerse us in the nightmare of the destroyed man and his dream. But they don’t, and the effect is one of losing the forest for the trees. Each statement jars us away from Ruby and breaks our concentration. Instead of being allowed to build to some cohesive whole, he has to start over again and again.
To take the place of the missing Act IIA, he is pulled and jerked back and forth on a carousel horse, symbolizing, no doubt, the disintegrating powers of all the parties who ever had a chance to work him over. Masked doctors speak sepulchrally. Defense and prosecuting attorneys tear at him and each other, confusing him even more. But why aren’t they masked? And why not Ruby’s girls, who are certainly as faceless in their own way as the alienists are in theirs? Logan’s lines are good, but they simply can’t catch up with what we never saw.
The Peter Wolf set and Robyn Baker lighting are put to good use in the first act. Later, ladders and levels, lines and lighting are beautiful to look at, but strangely under used, little more than peripheral, floating, unconnected afterthoughts instead of integrated, pertinent and explosive exclamation marks.
Perhaps if the final act had been played more in the Carousel Club setting, the final moments of Jack Ruby would have been more effective. Where once we saw bare flesh, now, like some desperately grim vaudeville act, we should see Ruby similarly stripped of spirit, identity and his cherished American Dream.
Such an important idea for a play. We’re glad to see Baker and crew daring such things. More efforts of this ambition should be tried in the somewhat timid realm of Dallas theaters and audiences.
But our respect for the notion of Jack Ruby cannot erase our disappointment with the production. In the midst of a thousand explicit traumas, we never found one important one. In the program, Ruby is described as an Everyman. Presumably, he is to be the personification of the weaknesses and strengths, the good and bad, the superfluous and meaningful in Americans and their Dream. But the Ruby we see never comes off that way. If a wacky nightclub entrepreneur who loves dogs better than girls and has a whore-with-a-heart-of-gold syndrome and happens to go off his rocker one day is an Everyman, then we’re Ma and Pa Kettle.
If we are to discover the universality of Ruby and his tragedy, the play must provide us the bridge across which we can travel from an intellectual involvement with the historical Ruby to an emotional recognition of the Ruby in us all. The bridge isn’t there. We never make the connection, the jump, from Ruby to ourselves.
When Macbeth dies, we feel pain in spite of what he has done. The connection has been made. When Willie Loman dies, we see somehow, the Willie in us all. When Ruby dies, we go ho-hum. No sorrow for the strutting little man. No sense of pity for the dreamer, no association with our own dreams.
The disappointment stems from our expectations. We were promised so much more. In place of biography and character study, we looked forward to real daring, real statements about important things. The American Dream. Assassination. Fate. Our emotions and souls.
Instead, we got only another play to which we could safely take our consciences. Yet another piece of journalism about Jack Ruby. Jack Ruby was just too palatable. There could have been so much more. We were game.