By JOHN DeMERS
Imagine all the goofy conspiracy theories you’ve heard about everything in your life, from the Kennedy assassination to the Apollo moon landings to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and then ponder for just a moment what it would mean if they were all true. Turning it around, if they were true, how would we best go about connecting all the dots? It would be like a 10,000-piece jigsaw puzzle, except maybe attempting it upside down, in the dark.
That’s more or less the task Steven Dietz sets before himself – and to some degree, before us – in his play Yankee Tavern, focused on a tangle of wild ideas spinning off from 9/11. We’ve all met people who believe in such things, and we’ve all had to learn to file those people away right along with their rantings. They get in the way of the basic calm, the basic belief system, we need to be productive. So Dietz, ever the trouble maker here, keeps insisting that we consider the big What If.
The tavern in question is a rundown piece of New York City real estate, surely one of few with such limited monetary value, run by the son of the man who owned it before allegedly committing suicide (Adam by name), to the growing distress of the woman planning to marry him (no, not Eve – Janet). As a couple, they have their issues surrounding secrets and trust, but then again, who doesn’t? Things go increasingly wrong, however, when the bar’s longtime beloved homeless guy (Ray) gets into one of his conspiracy rants about 9/11, and even more so when his hysteria gains traction from the comments of one mysterious stranger in a Yankees cap (Palmer). A dizzying array of suspicions are raised in the course of these entertaining and brain-teasing two acts, touching on everything from Adam’s fidelity to Janet to the U.S. government’s possible complicity in attacking, well, itself.
As directed by Stages producing artistic director Kenn McLaughlin, Yankee Tavern blends the pacing of a Hitchcock thriller with the barrage of weird revelations remembered from ancient Twilight Zone episodes. There are supernatural overtones, maybe, as in Ray’s conversations upstairs each night with ghosts including Adam’s father. But mostly the tension comes from real possibilities about real historical events – along with the real question of what we’re willing to consider believing. What we believe (and, by process of elimination, disbelieve) helps hold us together, helps make us who we are. If that were to change suddenly, Dietz seems to be asking, what happens then?
The ensemble piece is expertly acted, beginning with a scruffy, shaved-headed, gray-bearded version of Philip Lehl as Ray, the guy whose crazy blurtings seem, with every new piece of the puzzle, just a little less crazy. Adam Gibbs and Rachel Logue are pitch-perfect as the more-troubled-than-they-know young couple, as especially she comes to doubt that he is who or what he seems. And David Matranga is believable as the enigmatic Palmer, whose actions and motives are never completely explained. Jodi Bobrovsky delivers an eye-catching set that contains the whole tale with a dollop of claustrophobic delight. The lighting design by John Smetak and especially the eerie sound design by Michael Mullins contribute mightily.
As befits a play making or even entertaining such outrageous claims about an event that happened before the world’s eyes, the story concludes with loose ends and mind-bending uncertainty. Still, I’d swear I heard some one-line allusion to “Yoko Ono and the Bay of Pigs.” I Googled exactly that and got zillions of references to each, of course – but none to both. Really, after what she did to the Beatles, would we still be all that amazed if there were something to it?
Photos courtesy of Stages: (top) Lehl and Gibbs; (bottom) Lehl and Matranga.