To Ray (Anderson Matthews), the Yankee Tavern is a place where everybody knows your name — and your Social Security number, the names of your sex partners, and your precise DNA sequencing, thanks to tiny devices that “they” set up, in the bar and elsewhere.
Yes, Ray is a classic conspiracy theorist, who also talks to the dead and who lives in the otherwise-abandoned rooms over the Tavern. Adam (Eric Sheffer Stevens), who owns the place, tolerates Ray because Ray was once best friends with Adam’s dad, who was found dead — possibly by his own hand — on September 12, 2001. So, too, does Adam’s fiance, Janet (Anne Marie Nest), notwithstanding that Ray intends to invite the dead to her wedding.
Yankee Tavern is itself like a conspiracy theory — it begins in comedy and ends up…somewhere else. Conspiracy theorists challenge conclusions about history — that bin Laden caused the September 11, 2001 attacks on America, that a lone gunman killed Jack Kennedy, that Roosevelt did not know about Pearl Harbor in advance — which the rest of us need to believe in order to move on with our lives. When conspiracy theorists can be marginalized — as Ray can, supremely — our laughter is, at least in part, the laughter of relief.
And yet… Ray does seem to have a lot of questions about what happened on September 11 for which there are no easy answers. Why did Building 7, which was not hit, implode? If jet fuel burns at a lower temperature than the melting point of steel, why did the Towers’ frames melt? And when a mysterious stranger (John Lescault) appears with a new packet of evidence, we are suddenly out of the land of big belly laughs and into the deep doo-doo.
Yankee Tavern continues its inexorable slide from benign comedy to horrifying mystery when Adam, who has hitherto seemed to be nothing more than an earnest PhD candidate, reveals his own dark mystery. Janet, worried that Adam is trysting with an old college professor, discovers something more ominous. Ray, who spends the first act as an object of affectionate derision, becomes the story’s moral center. The play ends abruptly, as if playwright Steven Dietz is planning a sequel. The first act is a genuinely funny piece, the only sustained comedy of the festival. If Dietz keeps some developments vague, we must remember that we ourselves are still vague on most of the details of 9-11, and everything else. Dietz moves into the second act’s drama seamlessly and convincingly, but I’m less sure where we’re going — and so, I think, is Dietz.
The production, and in particular Robert Klingelhoefer’s brilliant set, is first-rate. David Remedios’ sound design gives a chill overlay to the first act’s banter, and John Ambrosone’s lighting is of the best. As for the performances, they are spot-on. Stevens lays the groundword for his second-act turnaround even while playing the pleasant young bartender-grad student, and Lescault and Nest are very inch the ying and yang of conspiracy. Matthews, whose work I have praised earlier in the Festival, here recalls Christopher Lloyd at his comic best — shaken, but never stirred.
by Steven Dietz
directed by Liesl Tommy
Produced by Contemporary American Theater Festival
reviewed by Tim Treanor