Joel Mitchell in Breathe Art Theatre's "Yankee Tavern." Photo: Demetri Vacratsis

'Yankee Tavern' is a doodle dandy

By John Quinn

Steven Dietz's "Yankee Tavern" is an unsettling play. What seems at first to be mere dark comedy turns sinister and leaves its audience questioning the line between truth and lies. The playwright puts it best: "There is always a bigger story hiding in the room than the one you brought through the door with you."

The Yankee Tavern is the last business open in an otherwise abandoned hotel near Ground Zero, New York City. It's over four years since the city was rocked by the tragedy of 9-11-01, but the shock waves have yet to subside. Young Adam has inherited the business from his father. His fiancee, Janet, is looking forward to Adam collecting his graduate degree, getting out from under the failing business and settling down to marital bliss. But relationships are built on trust, and this couple doesn't have enough to share.

The bar's most regular customer is Ray, itinerant homesteader and conspiracy theorist extraordinaire.

His calm, cool explanations of deceit, from the Kennedy assassination to the plot behind Starbucks, and his nightly conversations with the ghosts in the empty hotel are signs we're dealing with a character. Janet seems to enjoy yanking Ray's chain, although Adam discourages her. Small wonder - he has been listening to Ray more closely than Janet knew. The theme of his international studies thesis is that conspiracy theories are more dangerous to society than the events that trigger them. "People will believe anything they have not been given a reason to disbelieve."

If Ray's speculations are odd, they positively run amok with the appearance of a new customer. The taciturn Palmer knows more than he's saying about 9-11, but is he a fellow theorist or one of "them?"

The second act whirls us into a storm of missed calls, missing persons and missing evidence. A sense of paranoia is normal - what can we believe? What cherished lie can be blown away by a doubtful truth?

"Yankee Tavern" is thought-provoking entertainment but is a problematic script. Ray's torrent of conspiracy facts would be numbing if they were not delivered by an actor as talented a Dan Jaroslaw. He drives the narrative. The character may be crazy, but Jaroslaw makes him crazy smart. His timing breaks up the monotony of the rants and puts just the right accent on the comedy.

Joel Mitchell's Palmer is justifiably a cypher; grim, even menacing. He doesn't speak much, so the character needs an aura and Mitchell fills the bill. The script leaves Adam and Janet with rather sketchy character development, yet Kevin Young and Chelsea Sadler succeed on rounding out the roles. Add in the able guiding hand of director Michael Carnow and a solid, squalid set by Valerie Bonasso, and you're ready for an episode of "Who Do You Trust?" That was a game show reference, courtesy of my trivia-filled brain.

"A 'conspiracy theory' is simply a Tall Tale without end," Dietz writes. "Yankee Tavern," too, has no end. It leaves us wondering what dark forces lurk around the next corner.


'Yankee Tavern'

Breathe Art Theatre Project at The Furniture Factory, 4126 3rd Street, Detroit. Fridays-Saturdays through Feb. 27, plus Sundays Feb. 20 & 27. $20. 248-982-4121.

Then at Mackenzie Hall, 3277 Sandwich St., Windsor, Ontario. March 3,4 & 6. $20. 519-255-7600.

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