‘Yankee Tavern’ at American Blues Theater: Conspiracy theory slips under cloak of reality
Review: “Yankee Tavern” by Steven Dietz, produced by American Blues Theater at Greenhouse Theater Center, through March 22 ★★★
By Lawrence B. Johnson
Myth, as we understand the idea in its ancient sense, was probably the earliest expression of conspiracy theory. Whom could ill-fortuned Greeks blame for the mess of the moment? Answer: The gods, who were always conspiring against them.
Fast forward a few millennia, and you have ever-suspicious Ray in Steven Dietz’s play “Yankee Tavern.” Ray is a dot-connector with a cautionary theory about everything from 9/11 to Disneyland. His hypotheses of conspiracy range from intriguing to idiotic, but taken together they make for an interlude as provocative as it is wild at American Blues Theater.
Actually, it isn’t Ray’s story. He’s just a dilapidated, scruffy sort of left-over hippie who hangs out at a bar in downtown Manhattan called the Yankee Tavern. The place is owned and run by Adam, who inherited it from his father, a friend of Ray’s from way back.
Adam and his fiancée Janet are on an uncertain path toward tying the knot — but first Adam, who’s writing a post-graduate paper theorizing on 9/11, has a rendezvous in Washington D.C, with a former professor, an Arabic woman who’s apparently quite a package. (Ray, who can never get her name quite right, calls her Professor Handjob.)
Into the midst of this cozy threesome walks a man with somewhat murky connections to the official inquiry into 9/11. He knows things, or seems to. He comes and goes, but each time he reappears at the bar he brings a little more heat — he’s more aggressive, his conversation more specific. He lost a friend when the towers came down, now five years ago, and he’s still looking for answers, and maybe vengeance.
To say the plot of “Yankee Tavern” is tissue-thin is a plausible understatement. But the play isn’t exactly plot driven; it’s dot-driven. It’s all about the dots, sort of a conspiracy variation of Who’s on First?: Every so often, as you’re trying to track one of Ray’s convoluted ratiocinations or draw a clear inference from bits about Professor Handjob, you find yourself thinking, “Naturally.”
And that brings Ray back squarely into the spotlight, like a sardonic stand-up comic with a benign supporting cast. Richard Cotovsky’s disheveled, rambling observer of intricate causal relationships and suspect coincidences is worth the price of admission. Ray never stops. Sure the U.S. made the moon landing that we all thought we watched on television — but it was on the other moon. What other moon, Ray? The other one, the invisible one they aren’t telling us about.
Cotovsky delivers Ray’s windy recitations (more like soliloquies, except that people are actually listening) with the motoric evenness of recipe readings, informative, without emotion: This is how it went down; accept this reality or keep your head buried in the sand. The evidence is there for us both to see, and I see it. But then Ray also sees — and talks to — ghosts in the empty, deteriorating hotel rooms above the Yankee Tavern, where he sleeps.
The old guy’s conspiracy fixation is just something Adam (Ian Paul Custer) and Janet (Darci Nalepa) put up with. And then dots begin to loom up that even they must try to connect. The mystery man (Steve Key) is coming on pretty strong, and he seems to know the details of an awkward development between Adam and his comely ex-professor, stuff that’s never been shared with anyone. Suddenly Adam is in a very tough spot and Janet is frantic. Cue the phone.
In no small way, the flavor of Dietz’s tale, like the charm of Ray’s conspiratorial excursions, resonates to the bar setting, and designer Grant Sabin has conjured a watering hole redolent of nostalgic detail. Director Joanie Schultz underscores that aura with unhurried pacing. Izumi Inaba’s costumes might go unnoticed in their suitably ordinary aspect – except for Ray’s deliciously bedraggled look. He could use a good barber, too. Which reminds me: You know that barbers are in cahoots with big oil, right?
- Performance location, dates and times: Details at TheatreinChicago.com
- Preview of American Blues Theater’s complete 2015-16 season: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com