At CRT, murky play attacks big issues

Reviewed by George Basler

Steven Dietz has said “conspiracies are catnip to a playwright” because of the level of obsessiveness and outlandishness for the personalities involved, and because there’s always enough “truth” to ground their actions.

Obsessiveness and outlandishness are certainly on display at the Chenango River Theatre in Greene, which is ending its season with a production of Dietz’s Yankee Tavern, a play about the conspiracy theories and paranoia surrounding the attacks of 9/11.

Whether this makes a good play, however, is debatable. The well-acted production certainly raises a lot of issues, and conspiracy nuts should love it, but I found the play muddled and murky with underdeveloped characters and an unconvincing plot line.

Don’t take my opinion as gospel, though. My wife enjoyed the play, and she’s hardly a conspiracy nut. The play also has had numerous productions across the country, and other critics have called it intriguing and entertaining.

The action in Yankee Tavern begins in 2006, some five years after the attacks on 9/11. The scene is a rundown bar in the Bronx, which is facing demolition. The set by Bill Lelbach, who also directed, catches the cluttered, seedy atmosphere of the bar.

The play has one compelling character, Ray, an eccentric regular who lives in the abandoned hotel upstairs from the bar and dominates the first act as he spins a series of conspiracy theories on everything from the moon landing to what happened at the World  Trade Center on the day of  the attacks. Jim Wicker does a first-rate job in portraying this kooky character, who may be a nut job or a wise fool, depending on your perspective. He’s funny in Act 1 and finds a tenderness in the character by the end of Act 2 as the play turns darker.

The other three characters are more ill-defined. One is Adam, a graduate student who owns the bar which was once owned by his father. Another is Janet, a level-headed young woman who is planning their wedding. The final character is Palmer, a mysterious character who shows up at the bar and basically sets the plot in motion.

In the second act, real conspiracies engulf the characters’ lives, set in motion by Palmer, who, at first seems like a barfly but may have played a role in the 9/11 attacks. It turns out Adam may have been living a double life, and Janet begins to fear for his future.

Collin Blackard does a good job at portraying Adam as the nice guy graduate student, but I had trouble believing him as a duplicitous schemer. To be fair, Blackard doesn’t have much to work with. Adam, as written by Dietz, lacks any kind of clear motivation and is too much of a blank page to be really interesting.

Rebecca Blaine Carton is fine as Janet. She does a good job evolving from a level-headed character to one who begins to sense something is seriously wrong. The character becomes more emotionally distraught as the play progresses, and Carton captures this change. Steven Patterson is suitably ominous and threatening as Palmer, although the character doesn’t make much sense except as a plot device, and a hackneyed one at that.

In the end, in my opinion, Yankee Tavern is confusing and static, and Dietz fails to develop emotional depth for any of the characters, except for Ray. Dietz also has the annoying tendency to bring up plot elements and then forget about them. For example, hints are dropped that Adam’s father committed suicide, but this is never developed.

That being said, I did enjoy Wicker’s adroit riffs as the eccentric Ray. He almost saved the day, but not quite.

Again, I must mention that my opinion may be in the minority. My wife thinks I’m way off base and tells me I should have stepped back and enjoyed the play, and not looked for so many skeletons in the closest. And comments on Chenango River Theatre’s website are highly complimentary. So maybe I’m missing something.

In the end, your enjoyment of Yankee Tavern may well depend on how well you can tolerate conspiracy theories. I’m left with one question: Does Dietz expect the audience to take the play seriously, or is it an extended put-on and send-up of conspiracy theorists? Quite frankly, I don’t know.

The Chenango River Theatre is located at 991 State Highway 12 in Greene. Yankee Tavern runs through Oct. 28. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $19 for Thursday, $21 for Friday, $22 for Saturday and $20 for Sunday. Call 607-656-8499, or visit www.chenangorivertheatre.org.

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