We've all had friends or acquaintances who succumb to the theory, to that ever compelling notion that no terrible event can ever be random, and that therefore someone, some organization or some power must be behind every disaster. Even more, that someone wants to make sure that the public, that we, never find out the truth. In Steven Dietz's “Yankee Tavern” the object of that conspiracy is the great terrorist (?) event of this generation, the 9-11 attack on the World Trade Towers.
The play is set in a long-standing bar beneath a condemned hotel, where the young bartender, Adam, and his soon to be wife, Janet are the usual audience for the revelations, extrapolations and intimations of the long-winded, “itinerant homesteader” Ray. Ray lives in the empty rooms of the hotel upstairs, along with the companionable ghosts of all the previous tenants. He is a walking heap of cultural debris, singing for his daily ale with incredible stories about the menace and duplicity of all manner of social events and entities and sounding a call for the imminent unmasking of all that which others can't seem to see. Into his elaborate, hysterical paranoia walks a nearly silent and blandly ominous stranger, Palmer, a man with knowledge that both bolsters Ray's assertions and increases the risk for everyone concerned.
By far the most important and compelling character in this show is Ray, and I can't imagine a better actor to play him than Charles Leggett. Not only is he a born storyteller, with that particular verbal gift that forces the listener to hang on every word, if only to see if it can really get more fantastic than the one before, but he brings such a sense of history into his characterizations that you always feel like you are watching a man in the middle of a life, not in the middle of a play. Beyond that, with Ray he is able to create a character standing in the midst of his own wreckage, absolving neither himself nor anyone else of responsibility, and with a sadness that is palpable. This is a man who will never give up on life, but who also knows that he has made a pretty big mess out of his own.
The characters of Adam and Janet are far less well-written and in spite of good performances from Shawn Telford and Jennifer Lee Taylor, they never seemed consequential enough as people that the events of this play had sufficient dramatic substance. I thought Ms. Taylor was particularly good at delivering her lines clearly and with conviction, but there was not the sort of complexity in her life or her character to make her story sufficient to the drama. That was even more true for Adam, in spite of his family history with the bar and hotel. When we discover his own infidelity it seems to make him even less important, even less deserving of our sympathy and interest. That his romantic interest is also tied to surreptitious government intrigue felt strained and false, too much the writer's invention.
That artificiality was also true of the mysterious stranger, Palmer, and in spite of skillfully revealed backstory, the part was too melodramatic and contrived to feel authentic. The always competent R. Hamilton Wright did everything he could with Palmer, but the character is a cipher wearing a mystery, and while he is intended to increase our discomfort with every discovery, it is unsatisfying that in the end we know even less about him than we previously thought.
I think there is a real problem with the sheer quantity of contemporary detail in the elaboration of the conspiracy theory. At times it felt like reading yesterday's paper, and at other times like an almost desperate grab for relevance and historical significance in a story that was more about big events and ideas than the people involved in them.
“Yankee Tavern” is an entertainment that depends on building incredulity while increasing tension, and it culminates in an ending that is more mystery than resolution. Mr. Dietz directs his skillful cast very well, and the writing is highly accomplished in terms of tight, effective dialogue and finding good laughs at critical times. But it is also inclined to a sheer verbosity that pushes us away from the story and into the telling, into an excessive concern for all the detail and theory and exposition behind the argument. I found that all a bit tiring, rather like that guy I mentioned at the beginning of this review who always thinks he has something very important to tell you, and from whom your attention inevitably drifts.
PICTURED ABOVE: Jennifer Lee Taylor as Janet, Shawn Telford as Adam, R. Hamilton Wright as Palmer, and Charles Leggett as Ray.
PHOTO BY: Chris Bennion