Steven Dietz’s brilliant 2008 play, beautifully realized by American Blues Theater, is about the after-effects of 9/11, a catastrophe that produced not only terror and death, but also an online galaxy of “truthers” who saw that day not as an outside attack but as an inside job. Widely dismissed and ridiculed, their counter-narrative is nevertheless potential dynamite, raising very basic questions about what is real and who can be trusted.
Richard Cotovsky is terrific as the truther Ray, a shambling, shaggily intense conspiracy buff and chronic talk-radio caller who loves to share his theories about Yoko Ono and the Bay of Pigs. He lives in the abandoned hotel above the Yankee Tavern, an un-trendy dive in lower Manhattan (convincingly rendered by designer Grant Sabin) that sports a dial telephone, a Jimmy Carter campaign poster and a jukebox that died mid-song when the first airplane slammed into the North Tower. The joint is owned by Adam (Ian Paul Custer), who’s about to celebrate both his marriage to Janet (Darci Nalepa) and his newly earned degree in international studies. A fourth character—the quietly creepy Palmer (Steve Key)—gets a drink at the bar and heads out, but not before indicating that he knows a little more than he should about… well, everything and everyone.
Under Joanie Schultz’s taut, smart direction, the action starts slowly, then crescendos into an explosive second act. The cascade of interconnected revelations, personal and political, shows not only Dietz’s mastery of plotting, but also his willingness to explore the murkiest reaches of ambiguity. Equally on display here is the playwright’s and theater’s courage in raising these questions and issues, which are poised at the very edge of media-defined acceptability.
Like “The Manchurian Candidate” and “Dr. Strangelove” in the early 1960s, both of which evoked Cold War paranoia in order to expose it, “Yankee Tavern” challenges us to look squarely at the agendas that underlie every narrative. “You can no more fight a War on Terror than you can box with anxiety,” says the “crazy” Ray. Mocked by the “rational” Adam, Ray asks the simple, central question that we avoid at our own peril: “Who you gonna believe?” (Hugh Iglarsh)
American Blues Theater at the Greenhouse, 2257 North Lincoln, (773)404-7336, americanbluestheater.com, $29-$49. Through March 22.