Director Peter Frisch and The Producing Unit take on modern mystery in Steven Dietz’s psychological thriller, Yankee Tavern. Set in a run-down bar in NYC, the play opens with the engaged couple who owns the bar, Janet (Hayley O’Connor) and Adam (Charlie Rohlfs), arguing about their upcoming nuptials. Adam is dragging his feet, more interested in his thesis than the wedding. This disagreement, however, is hijacked by Ray (Joseph Bottoms), the semi-homeless, conspiracy theorist barfly who immediately turns the play’s focus from domestic struggle to animated discussion of the deeds of America’s secret government illuminati. Ray’s deliberations range from the JFK assassination to the “big marriage” gambit to, most prominently featured, the government’s alleged involvement in the events of 9/11. Adam, whose thesis is on conspiracy theories, fuels Ray’s rants. Later, another man, Palmer (Bill Egan), enters amidst Ray’s tirade and sits silently with a beer (and a beer for a non-present friend) except to offer one piece of incredibly leading evidence that burns the fire under Ray ever more fervently.
Yankee Tavern presents 9/11 conspiracies in extreme detail, giving audiences a thorough understanding of the alleged web of government involvement. Frisch aimed to use the play as a conversation-starter; he allows audiences to become engulfed in the insecurity and doubt about who designed and carried out the events of the September 11 tragedy. The play is an ode the mystery of the twin towers and a eulogy to those lost. The ghosts of the catastrophe linger, whether literally, as Ray insists (they apparently roam the halls of the condemned Yankee hotel above the Tavern), or not. The play keeps audiences invested in the possibilities of nefarious dealings regarding 9/11.
However, Yankee Tavern struggles with plot prioritization. Act I is a prologue, a whirling force of Ray’s intensity and paranoia, and the conflicts between Janet and Adam, and the mystery of Palmer’s motives, fall to the background. Ray’s knowledge conveyance is necessary for the audience to understand Act II, but the intensity of Ray’s delivery, both in length and performance, forces other plot points into the crevices of conversations that happen when he takes a breath or a drink. Dietz doesn’t emphasize the set-up for other conflicts in a meaningful way, leaving the show abnormally front-heavy.
In terms of production, Yankee Tavern offered an appropriately eerie atmosphere. The Tavern’s front window and front door floated against the upstage curtain, giving the effect of characters entering from and exiting into nothingness. While entrances and exits from the wing behind the bar would have seemed more natural, the floating front door seemed ghostly and paranormal. A character exits, but is still visible walking offstage, no longer in the playing area, somewhere in the non-existent universe outside the tavern. In these moments, Yankee Tavern exists in a world of ghosts — not just those haunting the hotel upstairs. Perhaps none of these characters exist at all, victims of 9/11, unknowing souls bound to wander the negative space of unfinished business. This layer of enigma, whether or not intentional, enhanced Yankee Tavern’s themes of doubt and secrecy.
While it struggled to balance storytelling and performance in a script of ambiguous conflicts, the play boldly forced audiences to seriously consider the conspiracies surrounding our government’s involvement in 9/11. Though certainty of who perpetuated the attacks won’t make the American public feel better about planes crashing into the Trade Center, it’s a pertinent topic to explore, despite potential audience discomfort. Yankee Tavern and The Producing Unit have given us a play that forces engagement with one of American history’s more recent and appalling tragedies.