ACT's production of Steven Dietz's "Yankee Tavern" places a cast of four terrific actors on a super set with great production values where they deliver some pretty funny, even occasionally insightful lines. Dietz himself directed. Why then did I leave the theater feeling as if I'd sat down to a meal of lovely hors d'oeuvres and starters, only to be asked to leave halfway through the main course?
"Yankee Tavern" takes place in 2006, five years after the events of 9/11, in a dingy New York bar of the same name created on stage by Matthew Smucker in loving detail down to the jar of toxic pickled eggs. Adam (Shawn Telford) is an international affairs grad student who inherited from his father not only the wrecking-ball destined bar, but his father's best friend and conspiracy spouting barfly Ray (Charles Leggett.) Ray finds conspiracies everywhere (the moon landing, Starbucks, weddings as retail conspiracies) and talks to ghosts in the halls of the abandoned hotel above the bar; his particular obsession with 9/11 fuels the forward momentum of the play.
Leggett has lots of funny material to work with, especially in Act I, but he also does a terrific job of investing the otherwise tiresome Ray with pathos, dignity and even sweetness. Adam is writing his thesis on 9/11; Adam's fiancé Janet (Jennifer Lee Taylor who voices Cortana in the HALO games) feels left out as the only person in New York who doesn't have a personal loss from 9/11, so much so that she manufactures a tenuous connection through a co-worker.
Enter the mysterious Palmer (R. Hamilton Wright), possibly a former government spook, whose claims to insider knowledge of 9/11 lend credence to Ray's theories. As Janet's belief in Ray and her distrust of government grows, so does her distrust of Adam whose possible involvement with 9/11 and a former professor may go beyond his thesis. Much to her dismay, Janet's wish for a personal 9/11 connection is fulfilled. Act II reveals that Ray may also be harboring secrets of his own.
The themes of trust/distrust on both a personal and public level, and the human desire to read meaning into everything make for promising material. Unfortunately, Dietz's script never fully delivers on the ironic intertwining of the private and political as he did with such success in his Grenada war satire, "Halcyon Days." Telford, Taylor and Wright try their best with the material they've been given, but their characters are not sufficiently developed to demand our emotional involvement. And the abrupt and unsatisfying ending leaves the audience unsated. Still, "Yankee Tavern" will keep audiences entertained as long as they're just along for the ride.
Yankee Tavern plays ACT through Aug. 29.