Conspiracy and paranoia take center stage in 9/11-themed ‘Yankee Tavern’

For better or worse, we live in a time filled with conspiracy theories. No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, there are outlandish stories dominating social media to suit your darkest beliefs about the secret masters pulling the strings behind our fraught, tenacious moment.

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But ours is not the first period in which conspiracy theories have ruled the roost. Think of the JFK assassination. TWA Flight 800. Or the mother of all 21st century conspiracy theories, 9/11.

This is the context behind Steven Dietz’s play “Yankee Tavern,” now receiving a new Austin production courtesy of Different Stages. The story is entirely set in a New York City bar, the titular Yankee Tavern, a down-on-its-luck dive that has seen better days. The bar and the abandoned hotel above it are owned by Adam, a young man who inherited the establishment from his father. He is helped by his fiancé, Janet, and his father’s best friend, Ray, though the entire building is scheduled to be demolished soon.

Ray dominates the first act of the play, staggering across the stage, opining about a variety of conspiracy theories both new and familiar, particularly those relating to 9/11. In their discussion of these conspiracies, all three characters reveal their own hidden doubts, insecurities and inabilities to leave certain mysteries unsolved. It is very much a character-driven drama that revolves around these conspiratorial debates.

The second act, though, takes a drastic narrative turn and becomes a straight-out thriller, as Adam and Janet find themselves wrapped up in a 9/11 conspiracy themselves, embodied by a threatening stranger who sat at the bar, mostly silent, throughout the first act. This sudden shift is a bit jarring and might work better if the intermission didn’t interrupt the dramatic buildup between acts, but both halves are interesting in their own right.

Director Norman Blumensaadt takes a very spare, realistic approach to the text, allowing the oddities of the conspiracies to create a weird atmosphere without any bells or whistles added. This works well, as it allows the cast to shine. Bill Karnovsky is particularly strong as Ray, embodying an old-school type of New Yorker who is equally as charming as he is off-putting, while Kelsey Mazak, as Janet, embodies the play’s dramatic arc with her slow unraveling and descent into paranoia. Will Douglas’ tightly wound Adam and Greg Ginther’s imposing Palmer (the stranger at the bar) both add to the tension, though the text gives them a bit less to work with.

Despite being uneven in its dramatic tonal shift, “Yankee Tavern” is a thoroughly engaging thriller that, in addition to telling a good story, also raises important questions about the things we question, why we question them and whether it’s more dangerous to ourselves (and to society) to get answers or not.

“YANKEE TAVERN”
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday through April 14, with no performance on April 1 and added performance April 11
Where: Santa Cruz Theater, 1805 E. Seventh St.
Cost: $15-$30
Information: differentstagestheatre.org.