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Yankee Tavern: Bold play tackles big issues

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We've seen it before. Steven Dietz's view of America, sampled here at the defunct SouthEnd PAC in God's Country (2005) and Lonely Planet (2004), embraces paranoia, deceit and mass killing as the engines that drive our troubled lives. Those earlier plays were ominously topical, to be sure, Lonely Planet fixated on the AIDS pandemic and God's Country obsessed with The Order, neo-Nazi perpetrators of the most successful crime spree in US history.

Dietz strikes closer to home -- or homeland -- in his new drama, Yankee Tavern, now in its "rolling world premiere" at Actor's Theatre. Newly admitted to the National New Play Network on the strength of its production of Southern Rapture last spring, the renegades on Stonewall Street are now the third of four NNPN member companies opening Deitz's thriller -- and offering the playwright a chance to refine his handiwork along the way.

God's Country presented opportunities for us to scrutinize the twisted phobias that fuel the terrorist actions of white supremacists, and -- more comically -- Lonely Planet peeped in on the fears that cowed a hermetic owner of a map store. Dietz deftly turns his crosshairs at us while we watch these New Yorkers, still haunted by 9/11 five years after the fact. At Yankee Tavern, your neighborhood ethanol shrine to Gotham's most storied baseball team, protagonists are polarized on the questions of who was really responsible for the attacks on the Twin Towers, what were their objectives, and whether the full truth is unknowably pulverized or conspiratorially buried. Yet the center between these extremes has been shifted due west of what most of us assume.

Ray, a seedy old freeloader who communes with ghosts in the abandoned hotel above the tavern, is open to the full panoply of "Truther" conspiratorial theories implicating Saudi princes, World Trade Center building owner Larry Silverstein, corrupt U.S. corporations, and the Bush administration. The tavern owner, Adam, scoffs at all the urban legends, specious numerology, and Truther theory that Ray traffics in. But as his fiancée, Janet, already knows, Adam has listened more closely to Ray's ravings than he lets on. As our story unfolds, with Dietz expertly ratcheting up the suspense (with a mysterious stranger and a loaded gun behind the bar), Janet has reasons to suspect that Adam is two-timing her with one of his university professors -- and concealing a link with the CIA.

Yet as we watch Yankee Tavern, the larger questions -- far bigger than whether Adam is faithful, what he knows about 9/11, and whose side he's on -- increasingly center on what we believe about 9/11, how substantial the evidence is for our beliefs, and how distant our beliefs might be from the truth. While these questions swirl most urgently around Adam onstage and Ground Zero in the outside world, they reach outward and impel us to scrutinize how we construct our seemingly solid views of reality, inside the theater and in our daily lives.

Because even the old codger, I must confess, had more facts about 9/11 at his command than I did. And if you think Dietz is merely trying to be the Oliver Stone of 9/11, you will surely be surprised by the depth of his response.

While some Yankee pinstripes -- or the famed frieze of the Stadium upper deck -- would deepen its partisan flavor, Chip Decker's barroom set design is truly outstanding in its colorful decrepitude. Decker also fills out a fine cast as Palmer, the snoopy stranger, with a sleazy arrogance we can construe as coolly professional or insane.

Director Dennis Delamar sees little need to amp up the mystery or suspense here, so Matt Cosper is as unaffected as I've seen him onstage as Adam, allowing us a wide latitude in determining how naive he is about all the Washington intrigue he's involved in. Even Tom Scott, who can incline toward extravagance in comedic roles, delivers fascinating texture to his portrait of Ray, who may have a visionary gleam going for him somewhere in his inebriated haze.

Annoyingly cautious and suspicious at first, Kim Watson Brooks proves to be an inspired casting choice as Janet, likely the most clear-eyed of the characters we meet. Yet as the haunting denouement arrives, she is as eager as Ray to believe that someone is returning from the dead, modeling the habitual leaps in faith that enable us all to make sense of things.

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