As soon as Yankee Tavern begins, playwright Steven Dietz encourages us to question what we see and what we hear. In a run-down New York drinkery in 2006, Janet is preparing invites for her impending wedding to the owner Adam. We immediately learn that Adam’s guest list is full of made-up or deceased people. They’ve been chosen like characters in a play to conceal Adam’s lack of pals.
Adam’s one real confidante is a lady he doesn’t really want to mention to Janet. He’s been earning extra credit with his International Studies professor. Ray, a tavern regular and diehard conspiracy theorist, spills the beans about Adam and the Prof. This delicate information, along with Ray’s wild ideas about 9/11, JFK, and the moon landing, make Janet doubt her motives and beliefs.
When the low-key Palmer (Mark Poremba, Sea Marks) sidles up to the bar and proposes that some of Ray’s theories are true, Janet’s whole world is in danger of crumbling around her.
All these characters want to believe in something. Adam, portrayed by the handsome and self-assured Will Hodges (Hogs, Dawson’s Creek), has convinced himself that his father did not commit suicide, but was trying to foil a robbery instead. Janet indulges Ray and sees kernels of truth in his circumstantial scuttlebutt. Palmer believes he can make a difference by warning Adam that he’s in danger. Ray has “an enormous capacity for belief.” He thinks that the truth will come out if enough people question the lies around them.
But Janet is the focus of Yankee Tavern. Katie Huard (Mauritius) gives the character enough depth and range of feelings to maintain our sympathy throughout. She is serious without being gloomy, and when she gets upset, it’s consistent with her emotional development. We believe her.
Hodges can be likeable and assertive when the plot requires, but there doesn’t seem to be enough of a build-up from Ray’s assertion that Adam’s dad killed himself to a subsequent argument between the two men. During the first act, the writing seems to suggest that he becomes increasingly frustrated with Ray. That isn’t consistently shown. The brief lovey-dovey moments between Adam and Janet don’t ring true; the kisses are too chaste, the embraces almost non-existent. This is supposed to be an engaged couple, not a married one.
In a smaller role, Mark Poremba (Sea Marks) plays Palmer with great presence and assurance. Not everyone can make sitting at a bar look interesting, but he does it. The real star of the show is Equity actor Randy Neale (The Seafarer, Killing Chickens), who gives the potentially crackpot Ray plenty of complexity.
Neale certainly has lots of good material to work with. He makes the most of his funnier lines (“I’m not a vagrant, I’m an itinerant homesteader”) without breaking character. He gives us food for thought; for example, he points out that the planet doesn’t need to be saved, we do. The planet will do just fine whether humans are here or not, it’s just a ball of rock. He even makes an overwritten line about “rats like a shimmering gray carpet” work.
Aside from getting convincing performances from the actors, director Sharon Graci also makes the uneven play work as a satisfying story. She makes some strange choices in placing her actors — they sometimes perform with their backs to the audience, and Poremba is seated upstage at the end of the bar so other actors have to turn away from us to face him. But this certainly helps to suggest messy tavern life in the most intricate set PURE has attempted in years. Michael Moran (set construction/design) and Chris Romano (props/set) actually make the proscenium look larger than usual with a mirror, liquor bottles, a jukebox, sturdy chairs and tables, and louver doors.
We may not accept everything that Ray tells us, but you can believe this is a return to form for PURE Theatre after the lighter, less polished It’s A Wonderful Life. Conspiracy theorists and fans of the company will not be disappointed.