At the Bartell Theatre, Madison Theatre Guild is presenting Steve Dietz's Yankee Tavern, an engrossing hybrid of comedy and political thriller about how "people will believe anything they haven't been given reason to disbelieve."
Yankee Tavern was once a hub of history, a dive where shiny-eyed patrons could watch the nightly news on its grainy televisions and talk politics with easy jocularity. But since 9/11, when the horrors of that morning overtook the city and when Vince, the bar's owner, was found dead (a possible suicide), Yankee Tavern has been in a state of slow collapse. Its drab interior does little to lure the curious drinker off the street, and its upstairs apartments have gone to canker and ruin, populated only by rats and, possibly, ghosts.
Haunted by the mysterious death of Vince, his father, and hounded by city developers who want to tear down the building, Adam (R. Peter Hunt), the present owner, still pours drinks for Vince's best friend, a conspiracy theorist named Ray (Mark Snowden). He lives in one of the derelict rooms above the tavern, communes with the deceased, and thinks the 1980 USA hockey team's "Miracle on Ice" was a vast conspiracy perpetrated by the Kremlin and Disney. Combine the skeevy humor of your weird uncle with the zeal of a crackpot pamphleteer and you've got a rough composite sketch of Ray.
Adam and his fiancée, Janet (Netalee Lev Sheinman), tolerate his harangues about JFK, the moon landing, Yoko Ono's involvement in the Bay of Pigs, and the semiotics of Starbucks's crowned-female logo (whom Ray calls "the pagan purveyor of liquid arousal"). One gets the sense that when not in the bar Ray operates as a kind of disheveled, itinerant prophet who stumbles around urban plazas shouting preachments at corporate skyscrapers. Between Ray's outbursts, Adam and Janet squabble about their wedding plans and question one another's fidelity - at first, teasingly, but later, more intently.
A grad student struggling to finish his international studies thesis, Adam has been rendezvousing with his former Columbia professor who, before 9/11, intercepted communications made between terrorist cells for the NSA. Distressed by Adam's crush on his former professor, Janet suspects that something isn't right and presses him for pledges of devotion. All the while, Ray staggers around the bar, sermonizing with delicious one-liners and impressive-sounding theories.
In the midst of such harebrained blather, Ray manages to stumble into a few lucid moments when his questions about the events of 9/11 subvert the conventional wisdom and rattle both Adam and Janet. Is it really possible that Building 7 was the first skyscraper in history to collapse because of a fire? Why did Larry Silverstein take out a $3.5 billion insurance policy on the Towers only two months before the attacks? Does jet fuel burn a temperature high enough to melt steel?
As these questions go unanswered and the couple's relationship signals failure, a shifty patron (Jason Compton) enters the conversation and unveils the ways in which the characters are part of a conspiracy all their own.
Uttering playwright Steve Dietz's erudite witticisms and rejoinders with the rapid-fire delivery of Jesse Eisenberg, Hunt plays Adam with poise and aplomb. Sheinman, as Janet, seamlessly matches Hunt's energy so that the duo often achieves the kind of snappy banter made famous by Aaron Sorkin's The West Wing.
Snowden's interpretation of the tendentious but tender Ray is spot-on and serves as the fulcrum on which the success of the play ultimately pivots. Compton gives a brooding and beguiling performance as Palmer, the mysterious stranger who upends the lives of the other characters. And Greg Harris and Steven M. Peterson, Yankee Tavern's director and lightning designer, decorate the otherwise spare bar scene with dungeon-esque lamps, which lend the Evjue stage the moody atmosphere of your standard urban tavern.
All this amounts to a compelling political drama about the conspiracies we invent and the lies we tell ourselves in order to make sense of contemporary life, all its glory and horror.