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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
Yankee Tavern

Vigilance, Adam. Eternal vigilance. And, hey, some guy heard my theory about Yoko Ono and the Bay of Pigs, and he wants me to do a blob. What's a blob, anyway? — Ray

Yankee Tavern
Jim Shankman as Ray and Pheonix Vaughn as Janet
(Photo: SuzAnne Barabas)
Steven Dietz, one of America's most prolific contemporary playwrights, has written a humdinger of a play, a suspenseful, thought-provoking thriller that is above all else vastly entertaining. Part of the National New Play Network Rolling World Premieres, Yankee Tavern is giving New Jersey theatergoers a real treat, one that should also make them tremble enough to say, "Is this really possible?"

I have to admit that I am a sucker for conspiracy theories. I am still not completely convinced that there isn't something a little too patently coincidental between the exacerbated grief at Toyota and the longtime accumulating resentment by the American automobile industry. It is a wonder that among the litany of conspiracies that Ray (Jim Shankman) carries on about that he doesn't mention the above while he paces frenetically about the run-down almost derelict Yankee Tavern on lower Broadway. His target audience at the tavern, that is when he isn't speaking to the ghosts who reside in the empty hotel rooms above, is Adam (Jason Odell Williams) the current proprietor/son of the deceased owner and Adam's fiancée Janet (Pheonix Vaughn).

Ray is not only a diehard conspiracy theorist but also (as he calls himself) the "itinerant homesteader" at the Yankee Tavern which he uses as his soap box. If Adam is basically willing to listen to Ray's theories, it is Janet who senses in them the potential to create a schism in their relationship. Listening to Ray carry on about weddings being "a conspiracy — a brutal and pervasive strategy to empty the pockets of guilt-ridden parents and tie up the good hotels in the month of June," is just one of a slew of amusingly theoretical notions that serve almost as a trap to his more ominously convincing theory regarding what and who really brought down the Twin Towers.

After some motor-mouth rants on how Disney participated in the fall of communism and who really rigged the elections that would send Al Gore on the road to save the planet, Ray settles down just enough to pose his often scarily logical accumulation of data and facts about the events on 9/11. Pieced together they make just enough sense to make us wonder.

But what are we to make of the sudden appearance of Palmer, a mysterious stranger (played with an unnervingly effective smirk by Michael Irvin Pollard.) With the anticipated demolition of the old building, Adam, a graduate student, has set his sight on joining the CIA upon the counsel of a college mentor/professor with whom he makes furtive little side trips and with whom he also apparently shares a somewhat secret alliance.

The increasingly agitated Janet finds it discomforting to listen to Ray's theories but even more concerned about how Adam's life appears influenced by the unseen professor. Things get really scary when she unwittingly becomes a party to a conspiracy.

The performances, under the taut direction of SuzAnne Barabas, are a confluence of excellence. You don't have to ascribe to Ray's arguably nonsensical diatribes to be totally won over by frenetic Shankman's impassioned delivery. It is the Hitchcockian ordinariness of both Adam and Janet, as convincingly portrayed by Williams and Vaughn that keep us on our guard.

I was especially impressed with the jukebox in Jessica Park's evocation of a shabby bar. I suppose it was Jill Nagel exemplary lighting that made it spring to blinking life at a climactic moment. The play is enhanced and cleverly underscored by a delightful synthesis of themes by Hitchcock's favorite composer Bernard Hermann, Philip Glass and others. All other technical credits were top notch.

Yankee Tavern
By Steven Dietz
Directed by SuzAnne Barabas.
Cast: Jason Odell Williams (Adam), Pheonix Vaughn (Janet), Jim Shankman (Ray), Michael Irvin Pollard (Palmer)
Scenic Design: Jessica Parks
Lighting Design: Jill Nagel
Costume Design: Patricia e. Doherty
Running Time: 1 hour 55 minutes including intermission.
New Jersey Repertory Theatre, 179 Broadway, Long Branch, N.J.
(732) 229 — 3166
Tickets ($36.00 - $60.00)
Performances are Thursdays, Fridays, at 8 PM; Saturdays at 3 PM & 8 PM and Sundays at 2 PM with selected Sundays at 7 PM.
Opened 04/15/2010
Ends 05/23/2010
(Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 05/01/2010
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