Stage Review: Domestic Surveillance

In ACT’s Yankee Tavern, 9/11 conspiracies collide.

Conspiracy theorizing is a state of mind, a way of seeing the world, and for some a way of life. Few delights rival the interlocking of disparate story elements into a nefarious tableau. "Connect the dots and the full picture emerges," says a patron at the lower Manhattan saloon that gives Yankee Tavern its name. "People will believe anything they haven't been taught to disbelieve." No one would listen to this barfly if it weren't so soon (2006) after 9/11 and he weren't a legacy customer. But the bar's current owner does listen, with disastrous results, in Steven Dietz's skillfully executed new suspense/comedy hybrid. Its two acts are intentionally mismatched: first the laughs, then the chills. As a dark comedy, it works.At first it appears that Ray is merely a blustering know-it-all. Played by comic bonanza Charles Leggett, he opines of the moon walk, "Of course that was all staged. Everyone knows that. Buddy of mine did the lighting for it." Ray's beer belly sprouts through the split of his schlubby cardigan like an autonomous character worthy of separate billing. He wears a radio headset like life support, and weighs in on everything from the wedding industry to spores being invented by Kleenex to Starbucks' "cult in a cup," always with the same downward slant of a domino cascade. Ray's posturing is uproarious, as he boxes the air, fancies himself "catnip in a cardigan for student radicals," and holds his liquor bottle like a beacon of truth. He's the kind of guy who, if he weren't already squatting in the vacant flophouse rooms above the bar, you'd bring in to lower property values.Yet bar owner Adam (boyish Shawn Telford) continues to listen, because Ray was his late father's best friend. Adam now hangs onto Yankee Tavern while he finishes grad school and writes a thesis on the 9/11 Commission Report. The place (nicely constellated by Matthew Smucker as an old-fashioned rectangular counter in the middle of undefined space) is a tad spooky. Adam's likable fiancée, Janet (Jennifer Lee Taylor), hopes he'll get rid of it. Most of the barflies have been priced out of the hood, and the jukebox hasn't worked since the planes hit on 9/11, when it was playing "American Pie."Like the rumors of Keyser Söze in The Usual Suspects, the suspicions Ray plants about 9/11 as a U.S. government plot gradually take root in the tavern, diverting focus from the wedding and the bar's imminent demolition to the much more engaging matter of Who is this guy I'm engaged to, anyway? Holding the key to that question is laconic new patron Palmer (eerily still R. Hamilton Wright), who, when he finally does speak, has some surprising, pivotal puzzle pieces to contribute.It's all good fun until somebody gets their proverbial eye poked out. Act 2 veers from comedy toward a radically different tone. Just as Palmer and Ray are fixated on the hidden "truth" of 9/11, Janet's growing doubts about her fiancé lead her into an unnerving transformation. The mood shifts to something like Francis Ford Coppola's obsessive masterpiece The Conversation, in which the quest for conclusive intelligence destroys its hero.Dietz (Becky's New Car) has a long history at ACT: This is his 10th play for the company, and he directs the production, too. He wrote Yankee Tavern in 2007, and it was first staged in Florida last year. The question here isn't whether it's "too soon" to be treating 9/11 for laughs (meaning shambling Ray), but why Dietz has divided the play so abruptly. Clearly he's not out to write a two-hour episode of Cheers.At first, the young betrotheds seem like supporting characters, nodding or gasping at what Palmer and Ray have to say. Yet Adam and Janet's relationship has its cracks: He plays a rotten trick on her with their wedding guest list. Maybe he's not as reliable as he seems. As performers, Telford and Taylor face the challenge of bridging from comedy to pathos. Taylor's Brahmin looks tend naturally toward intellect and tragedy, while Telford's impish youthfulness excels in lighter situations. Each struggles when out of his or her element, which even before the second act plants some doubts about the viability of their bond.Upstairs, above the Yankee Tavern, Ray insists that the ghost of Adam's father, a suicide, is still in residence. Downstairs, when someone else suddenly goes missing, a new conspiracy theory is required. To cover this fresh wound, a counternarrative is needed—though one less comical than Ray's first-act ravings.The abyss of paranoia may be preferable to the pit of grief in Dietz's quirky, affable, and ultimately mordant play. Though, as with any good ghost story, it's best if you don't squint too hard at the

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