Yankee Tavern is a new play by Texan playwright Steven Dietz that proposes a universe where Occam's razor rubs backward, and a boring, factual explanation of anything must be a lie. In Yankee Tavern, we might all be controlled by Lizard People, things not run by Lizard People are probably the provenance of the Illuminati, and the most rational-sounding person onstage claims to have a moon rock from the — please follow me carefully — invisible moon upon which the Apollo astronauts actually landed. (The rock was given to this person by "a shaman in Queens," though where the shaman got it remains unclear.) The deceit is so massive and pointless that it must be true, because nobody would bother making up anything so weird.
At bottom, this is what passes for logic in Tavern. Weirdness alone seems to count as evidence of something, and where weirdness doesn't exist naturally, it is manufactured. Every crazy fact makes another fact seem crazier; each strange coincidence supports the portentousness of every other like the stones in an archway. In Tavern, no one with news of a strange coincidence could possibly be lying, for lies are the near-exclusive provenance of the mouthpieces of officialdom — the empowered speakers with the podiums and the courted press corps. This is the play's underlying dramatic conceit: Nothing is questionable but the facts.
And why not? Indulging in a little conspiracy-theory fantasy onstage is a good, smart, and mostly harmless way to create atmosphere. Unless, that is, your play happens to be about the conspiracy theories that sprang up in the wake of September 11, 2001, in which case you may have put your foot in it.
Yankee Tavern has probably put its foot in it. The play opens in the titular tavern, which has been recently inherited by a young man named Adam (Antonio Amadeo) — an earnest fellow with a hot fiancée named Janet (Kim Morgan Dean) and a clientele that seems composed exclusively of his deceased father's dear friend, Ray (William McNulty). Ray is a drunken, raving conspiracy nut whose paranoid oratory about moon rocks and evil plots dominates and subdues the tavern for much of the first act. Because of a lopsided script — which gives Amadeo approximately one line for McNulty's every ten, and Dean far less — Ray, though affable in a gruff way, comes off as a bully. Yet slowly, subtly, his arguments cohere. As the outside world slips away and your workaday disbeliefs are suspended, you may find yourself believing.
Not the moon-rock stuff. The 9/11 stuff. Perhaps we are primed for this, thanks to all the Loose Change-type assertions that have been put forth in recent years, which we ordinarily dismiss on sight without knowing exactly why. Why, for example, did the towers fall even though their steel cores should have melted only at 2,700 degrees while jet fuel burns at a comparably cool 1,500? And why did Larry Silverstein purchase a massive, multibillion-dollar insurance policy on WTC 1 and 2 mere weeks before the attacks?
Certainly, these are queasy-making questions. In real life, they would make an interesting launching point for a dialectic — wherein a well-informed debate partner might point out that the twin towers were not made of pure iron and therefore logically had a lower melting point than 2,700 degrees; and that Silverstein had, quite rationally, bought insurance because he'd just signed a 99-year lease on the properties. Yankee Tavern, however, leaves no room for intelligent discussion; it merely plays on our fears to prime us for action. In the middle of act one, for what seems like the first time ever, somebody besides Ray wanders into the bar. Palmer (Mark Zeisler) is a grim and haunted-looking man who orders a Rolling Rock for himself and another for a deceased drinking buddy. When he speaks at last — and it takes him so long you just know he's gonna say something heavy — his words yank Ray's bizarre claims right out of the abstract and drag them, bleeding and ugly, into the bar. For Palmer is no mere 9/11 conspiracy nut: He is a first-hand participant in those conspiracies, and he is only here because Adam and Janet have become unwitting participants as well. Soon, the plot picks up. Guns are drawn, people disappear, and the theoretical becomes very real.
Now listen: Please understand that I respect the tremendous amount of skill and verve it takes to pull off a play like Yankee Tavern. I marveled at set designer Richard Crowell's magnificently dilapidated barroom; I applauded the subtly mounting anxieties peeking through the friendly cool of Amadeo's Adam. I'm also a reasonable person, and I can look at the way act two explodes in a whirlwind of paranoia and violence as art for art's sake, even though it has a claim on reality roughly approximate to that of the fairy contingent in A Midsummer Night's Dream. In these terms, Yankee Tavern is one helluva show. You'll be scared by the intimations of act one. You'll be moved by the awful events of act two. And when the terrible day is discussed, you will hear the millennium's fresh ghosts rattling through the walls of the big theater at Florida Stage and feel their unhappy gaze beaming from the tavern's smudged, stained-glass windows. But you'll handle it. You too are a reasonable person.
Unfortunately, we are a slim majority, and while we can take Dietz's postulations with a few pillars of salt, I'm not so sure about everyone else. Not too many people believe in Shakespeare's fairies, but plenty are willing to jump at the shadows that no longer fall across Manhattan's West Side Highway. A 2006 poll by Ohio University found that fully one-third of Americans believe that the federal government had prior knowledge of the 9/11 attacks. A good night at the theater is worth a lot, but it is not worth increasing that number. By failing to include any cogent alternatives to Ray's theories and by giving us no choice but to accept that the events of act two really are indicative of a conspiracy to cover up the truth behind 9/11, Dietz may have succeeded in selling a bill of goods that he never bought in the first place.