Yankee Tavern opens in a seedy New York City bar that time and customers have forgotten. The bar's fresh-faced owner, Adam (Adam Gibbs), looks too young to be running such a decrepit watering hole, nicely evoked by designer Jodi Bobrovsky. Short on customers, he has time to work on his college dissertation, which apparently has something to do with 9/11 conspiracy theories.
Adam is joined by his fiancée, Janet (Rachael Logue), who's irked because he gave her a bunch of phony names and addresses when she sent out their "save the date" cards for their upcoming nuptials. He had sat down with the bar's lone regular, Ray (Philip Lehl), and invented a fake biography for himself, complete with old neighborhoods he never lived in, and old friends he never had. When Janet expresses her justifiable anger, he blames it all on Ray. "You know Ray," he says. "He likes to make stuff up."
Well, maybe Ray does. But why would Adam join in such a juvenile stunt? Doesn't he want to get married? These are questions that playwright Steven Dietz never answers, perhaps because he's not very interested in Adam and Janet as characters. Unfortunately, they, and the play itself, mostly exist so that Dietz can make the case that 9/11 was a government conspiracy.
Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Pkwy., 713-527-0123.
Through April 10.
The bedraggled-looking Ray soon appears, on cell-phone hold with a local talk show where he's set to present one of his numberless conspiracy theories and castigate the American public for being so easily bamboozled. The diatribe continues after Ray is off the phone. To the young couple, he then expounds on the moon landing — "they" landed on the moon, all right, just not the moon we see at night — and also on the Kennedy assassination, "when Americans learned to not trust what we'd seen with our own eyes."
Despite Adam's warnings, Janet gets sucked into Ray's whirlpool, questioning his ideas without having any way to refute them. It's easy to see where Ray's going with his semi-rant, which appears to take up most of his life. But it's harder to see what playwright Steven Dietz is trying to accomplish. Is there really a paying audience for two hours of nonstop conspiracy theory?
The action finally advances when Palmer (David Matranga), a "mysterious stranger," comes in and orders two Rolling Rocks. He hunches over one of them and sets the other in front of the barstool beside him. He leaves it untouched, and explains later in the play that he always buys an extra beer in memory of a friend who died on 9/11 in the infamous "Building 7," the skyscraper adjacent to the Twin Towers that also collapsed that day despite not having been hit by the planes.
Palmer suddenly ups the conspiracy ante, rocking Ray's world by saying he, Palmer, was the one who found the mysteriously undamaged passport belonging to one of the "alleged" hijackers near Ground Zero — that is, a passport that had survived the crash and somehow come through unscathed. For 9/11 doubters, the passport is an obvious plant.
Palmer doesn't explain himself much, but he might be one of "them," the shadowy insiders who know who's really pulling the strings. If so, why is he lurking around Yankee Tavern? He doesn't need Ray's theories to proceed with his project — whatever it is.
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The answer comes in Act 2, where Dietz loses control of his story. The most important parts of the action happen well off-stage, and they strain credulity nearly as much as the official version of what happened on 9/11. Adam takes off to spend a few days with a former Middle Eastern Studies professor, an Iranian woman who went to work for the National Security Administration as a translator. This professor might possess some very damning information about who knew what, and when they knew it, in the days before 9/11. So she's in danger, and, by association, Adam is too.
But this professor, who suddenly seems like the most important character in the drama, never appears onstage. She's only talked about by Adam and Palmer, and then in frustratingly vague ways. Maybe Dietz is trying to draw the viewer into the world of his characters, in which reality can never be known, and the facts can never be established. But his mysteries are not clearly enough defined, so the play lacks a dramatic core. There is still plenty that is unknown about 9/11, but these mysteries, discussed secondhand, don't add up to a satisfying drama.
None of this is the fault of the cast or crew. Lehl gives another strong performance as Ray, and Matranga brings a convincingly brooding and haunted depth to Palmer. Dietz's problem lies with what should be his two leads, the young engaged couple. Janet is rather generic, and Adam is so underdeveloped that when he disappeared at the end, I wasn't sorry to see him go.
Dietz offers a subplot concerning the bar, the old hotel that houses it, and the apparent suicide of Adam's father, the bar's original owner. But this doesn't go anywhere. There's a lot of talk about the building's ghosts, but they belong to a different wing of the afterlife than do the specters of 9/11.