Yankee Tavern at Westport Community Theatre

 “Today’s review is local- Westport Community Theatre’s production of the 2007 play, ‘Yankee Tavern’ by prolific playwright Steven Dietz.

If you’ve never heard of Dietz, it’s probably because only one of his 30 plus plays, ‘Fiction’ from 2002, was produced in New York City. But, in 2010, he was one of the ten most produced playwrights in America; his works have been a staple of regional theater for the past two decades and he has won some awards.

‘Yankee Tavern’ is set in 2006 in an old neighborhood bar in New York City in a building that, if you believe one of the characters, is inhabited by ghosts on several of the abandoned upper floors, which used to be a hotel. That character, who tells the tall tales of the ghosts, is an eccentric named Ray- and he also shares several conspiracy theories about 9/11 with anyone who will listen to him.

 l to r: Rachel Dalton, Ward Whipple, Frank Smith

And, if you happen to be in the Yankee Tavern, you really don’t have a choice but to listen to him as he rants on about several such theories to anyone who wanders in. Believe him or not, Ray- played by the talented Frank Smith- is a compelling storyteller and the driving force behind ‘Yankee Tavern.’

As directed by Ruth Anne Baumgartner, who has directed many regional plays in Connecticut, Ray is the center of the play’s universe- which makes sense- and I found his character convincing- even if I wasn’t completely convinced by his stories….I still believed he believed them. And that ‘s enough for me- and the rest of the audience- to question what we know (or think we know) about many of the events surrounding 9/11.

The dramatic tension in the play comes from the discussions Ray has with Adam, who inherited the bar from his father but is about to get a degree in international relations, and his fiancé, Janet. Rachel Dalton, who plays Janet, does a nice job creating a sympathetic figure.

 Ward Whipple and Rachel Dalton

Adam, as played by Ward Whipple, is a cipher. He questions Ray’s conspiracy theories- yet Janet reveals Adam is writing his college thesis on them. He also lies to Janet and only confesses when she confronts him with proof. Adam says he is ready to move forward with his life- but is he? And his motivations- for lying to her and also for his career ambitions- are cryptically unclear, which causes Janet to doubt him.

And, just when you think Ray might be full of…fiction… a mysterious, intense stranger (well played by Phil Lorenzo) appears at the tavern and corroborates much of what Ray is saying- and reveals he knows… because he was there. The stranger also has some telltale information to share with Janet- which only increases her doubts about Adam.

 Rachel Dalton, Frank Smith; photos from WCT

The drama builds well but leads to a conclusion that raises several questions- but also doesn’t come across as completely organic. Which is to say it feels a bit forced. Still, as a work meant to raise questions about a tragic part of American history that is now integral to our country’s identity, it succeeds more than it perhaps should. And, as conspiracy theories are abounding these days, this play is relevant again.

And that is a triumph- of sorts- for the playwright… and Westport Community Theatre’s cast and crew and I give ‘Yankee Tavern’ 3-1/2 stars out of 5. It isn’t perfect but it’s certainly worth seeing- particularly for Frank Smith’s excellent portrayal of Ray. ‘Yankee Tavern’ runs through April 29th. For more info visit Westport Community Theatre dot com.

Catch my reviews right here this time each week and on my Facebook page and website, Katz Reviews dot com,  where you will find all my WICC 600 reviews. This is Ed Katz talking theater for WICC 600!”

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