Yankee Tavern at Main Stage West, Sebastopol CA

Reviewed by Suzanne and Greg Angeo

Members, San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

 Photos by Elizabeth Craven, Main Stage West


The Truth is Out There

With more than 30 plays under his belt, acclaimed contemporary playwright Steven Dietz has seen his work performed in regional theaters all over the country and the world. Dietz specializes in tense psychological dramas with political and social themes. His dark thriller Yankee Tavern was first performed at the ACT Theatre in Seattle, WA in 2007, and is now being presented as the 2014 season opener at Sebastopol’s Main Stage West.

Set in a tavern near the ruins of the World Trade Center a few years after the 9/11 attacks, the play seeks to raise questions about the “official” explanation of events surrounding the attacks and the towers’ destruction.  The central character Ray (John Craven) is as fond of mysteries as he is of booze. Over the years he’s fallen under the feverish spell of every conspiracy theory and urban legend known to man, endlessly expounding to whoever is within earshot, including talk radio hosts.

From left, Tyler Costin and John Craven

His favorite hangout is the Yankee Tavern. It’s just blocks from Ground Zero and it’s a run-down wreck. On the floors above it are empty, decrepit apartments abandoned by all but the rats, and the ghosts, and Ray, who lives there. Adam (Tyler Costin), the twenty-something proprietor and son of the tavern’s late owner, is trying to sell it and get on with his life. Ray was his father’s best friend, but he’s getting on Adam’s nerves with his crazy stories and mooching of drinks. The final straw comes when Adam’s fiancée Janet (Ilana Niernberger) finds out that Ray has invited scores of dead friends to their wedding. Ray insists that the ghosts will all be there in spirit, wishing them well. Costin, fresh from a starring role in Brigadoon at Spreckels, gives a strong and lively rendering of Adam. Niernberger, who displayed considerable talent performing with Craven in last year’s Mauritius at MSW, was left with not much to do in the role of Janet.

Yankee Tavern is an odd, spotty patchwork of sly humor, suspense and paranoia. The real pleasure of the show is watching Craven tear the place up in a tour-de-force performance as the unkempt, fidgety Ray.  Craven keeps the audience mesmerized; even the smallest gesture is touched with nuance and meaning. At first, Ray seems to be on an earnest quest for the truth. We come to realize it’s the allure, the belief that things “are not as they seem” that keeps Ray hooked.  Until one day.

The tavern has seen tough times since the attacks, with few customers, but there’s one regular. An enigmatic and much-too-quiet fellow, Palmer  (Anthony Abate) suddenly reveals some frightening insider knowledge about the 9/11 attacks that implicates young Adam.  At this point the story’s center of gravity makes a head-spinning shift that could have come straight from the X-Files.

Ilana Niernberger and Anthony Abate

Direction by MSW Artistic Director Elizabeth Craven is brisk and energized, allowing realistic emotional reactions to show through the dialogue. There’s only one scene, in the second act, where perhaps  more tension would have helped. The set design by local legend Paul Gilger is a compact marvel of clean lines and atmospheric backdrops, representing the eerie skeletal remains of the Twin Towers. He said he wanted to convey an otherworldly quality to the tavern and its denizens, and in this he succeeds beautifully.

Even though the ending is a bit muddled and falls off a short cliff with no clear resolution, the story still has its rewards. Yankee Tavern’s appeal lies in the fact that people have always wanted to feel they are part of an exclusive group with special access to the truth. Maybe the truth is never revealed, but that’s almost beside the point. It’s the journey in pursuit of truth that keeps them going, and it’s the fuel that propels the entertaining intrigue of Yankee Tavern.

                Now you know it’s a meaningless question

                To ask if these stories are right

                ‘Cause what matters most is the feeling you get

                 When you’re hypnotized

                                                (from “Hypnotized” by Bob Welch/Fleetwood Mac, 1973)


When: Now through February 23, 2014

8:00 p.m Thursdays, Fridays & Saturdays

5:00 p.m. Sundays

Tickets $15 to $25

Main Stage West

104 North Main Street

Sebastopol, CA 95472

(707) 823-0177