A personals ad with a Florida state prison return address — what could possibly go wrong? Plenty, to the surprise of no one other than the gullible pen pal protagonist of “Tiger by the Tail” — and thereby hangs the tale in the first West Coast production of Frawley Becker’s 2006 drama at NoHo’s Lonny Chapman Theatre.
For lonely 45-year-old L.A. therapist Jerry (Michael Taylor Gray), his newfound long-distance correspondent seems just what the doctor ordered. Charming, insightful and totally buff, 25-year-old convict Maynard (Michael O’Neil Callaghan) is even a gifted poet. A lapse in judgment may have earned Maynard a short stay in the slammer, but when he gets out he’ll be ripe for rehabilitation in Jerry’s loving arms.
Or so Jerry thinks. The reality that emerges through their correspondence turns out to be far grimmer. Veteran stage director Jules Aaron brings visceral impact and clarity to this “Love Letters”-behind-bars saga, marshaling fine performances to rise above standard prison tropes: the sadistic guard (Bob McCullum), the slow-witted giant (Steven West), the reckless rebel (Marco Antonio Parra). As a gaunt tattooed murderer, Dave Buzzotta becomes our eloquent Mephistophelian guide through penal hell.
Less successful are the scenes between Jerry and his own therapist (Lloyd Pederson), written and played more for comic relief than emotional truth. Gray fares better with Jerry’s solo monologues and letter recitals, though the script’s overreliance on exposition and literary allusion leaves little room for subtextual nuance.
After the taut first act’s strikingly effective reveal, the second half loses focus, lurching between hard-hitting plausibility, subjective introspection and magical realism without quite committing to what it wants to be.
“Tiger by the Tail,” Lonny Chapman Theatre, 10900 Burbank Blvd., North Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends April 19. $25. (818) 763-5990 or www.thegrouprep.com. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.