Sunday, May 17, 2009

Theater review: 100-proof paranoia, deliciously served

Antonio Amadeo, left, and William McNulty in Yankee Tavern.

By Hap Erstein

A guy walks into a bar and orders two beers, one for himself and one for his absent buddy.

Yes, it sounds like the set-up for a joke, but with his chilling new play, Yankee Tavern, the prolific Steven Dietz has something darker and more sobering in mind. Chances are he would be pleased if his paranoid yarn merely gave the audience a collective case of the willies, but this cautionary tale about connecting the dots also seems likely to provoke a few thoughts on conspiracy theories and the nature of coincidence.

Dietz, whose plays range from the whimsical (More Fun Than Bowling) to the dour (God’s Country), is a master of smart dialogue and wily storytelling. He draws us in with characters that intrigue, but when the stories they spin ask whether or not we landed a man on the moon, who shot President Kennedy and what really happened on Sept. 11, 2001, they can do a number on our beliefs and leave us shattered.

Theatergoers at Florida Stage are in for a cerebral workout as Dietz attempts to cast doubt on everything you assume you know.

Inhabiting the Yankee Tavern, a rundown New York saloon and shrine to the Bronx baseball team, is its owner Adam (Antonio Amadeo), a graduate student in international studies, and his increasingly exasperated fiancee, Janet (Kim Morgan Dean).

Also on hand is gregarious Ray (William McNulty), a close friend of Adam’s late father, a possessor of an overactive imagination whose ability to spout urban myths on such subjects as the rigged 2000 presidential election, Yoko Ono’s involvement in the Bay of Pigs invasion or the miraculous U.S. hockey team at the Moscow Olympics is apparently boundless.

Ray’s tall tales are unnerving but probably harmless, at least compared to those from Palmer (Mark Zeisler), the stranger with the two-beer habit. He initially sits and sips in silence, but once he starts talking, he reveals an awareness of matters he has no business knowing about.

The rest of what Yankee Tavern serves up should probably be discovered by yourself. Suffice it to say that with this world premiere, Florida Stage is back in its strength of language-based, political plays, deftly directed by Michael Bigelow Dixon and well performed.

McNulty’s Ray could be dismissed as a nutcase, if he were not so well read and persuasive. Even if you do reject everything he says, the actor remains compelling. His ingratiating way with improbabilities is in marked contrast to Zeisler’s Palmer, a character of uncommon intensity, even before he opens his mouth.

Dean is the audience’s surrogate, rationally rejecting each conspiracy theory until they reach critical mass of undeniability. And Amadeo is well cast as fuzzy-headed barkeep Adam, amiable until he finds himself caught in a crossfire of double-crosses.

Aiding the evening’s credibility is Richard Crowell’s realistic, though dilapidated tavern set. And notice how sound designer Matt Kelly adds to the production’s mounting tension with a barely audible background thrum.

The American theater has a rich tradition of barroom plays, of which Yankee Tavern now becomes a part. Here’s a toast to Dietz and his play, which should work its way through the nation’s new play network with the staying power of a juicy conspiracy theory.

YANKEE TAVERN, Florida Stage, 262 S. Ocean Blvd., Manalapan. Through June 21. Tickets: $42-$45. Call: (561) 585-3433 or (800) 514-3837.

1 comment:

Michael said...

Pleased to advise that has posted a link to your review of Steven Dietz's Yankee Tavern. Regards,

Michael Meigs