Conspiracy theories live and die inside the heads of their proponents — unless they turn out to be true. That’s why a theater is the perfect place to put them to the test.
Filmgoers require action: The conspiracy must be true, so we can be entertained with black helicopters and car chases. In a theater, however, the helicopters can hover out of sight; nefarious or self-deluded mystery men can pop in and out to validate or subvert the theories of the onstage crackpot. Put that crackpot in a Manhattan bar during the decade after Sept. 11 and you’ve mixed a tasty cocktail with a kick.
This is what Steven Dietz is serving in his recent play Yankee Tavern, showing at ACT through Aug. 29. The play is not so bland as “Cheers” nor so tedious as Saroyan’s “Time of Your Life.” It’s a respectable contribution to the genre of taproom drama.
Here, the eponymous tavern has been a New York fixture for at least a generation. The current proprietor has inherited it, and his relationships with a dead father and a lively fiancée provide counterpoint to the dark imaginings of the semi-resident barfly. Dietz’s blend of political thriller and conventional family fable keeps the audience hanging on several hooks at once, which proves to be more entertaining than awkward.
In one fine moment of insight, the fiancée confesses to grief envy: Because she doesn’t know anybody who died in the collapse of the World Trade Center towers, she feels excluded from New York’s post-9/11 communion of tragedy and compassion.
Unfortunately, though, neither the wherefores of political paranoia nor the backstories of the characters’ relationships are deeply plumbed. Behaviors are explained by scant domestic dramas instead of rich hidden lives; illusions and delusions are suggested but not investigated. When Shakespeare wanted his characters to see a ghost, he put the thing on stage in the first scene. Dietz, on the other hand, seems ignorant or chary of the mind’s darker corners.
The playwright himself directed this production. In other hands the show might be stronger; another director, approaching the script with fresh eyes, might let the ambiguities linger.
Charles Leggett plays the conspiracist very ably, but he is more avuncular than manic: He’s the one you’d invite to your cocktail party, never mind the other characters’ impatience with his wild imaginings. Besides Leggett, the performances are a bit rough. Still, the old-school bar makes a nice centerpiece for ACT’s arena stage, and the actors move around it smoothly, providing us with a brisk and engaging evening’s diversion. We leave stirred, if not shaken.
If you go: Yankee Tavern, through Aug. 29 at A Contemporary Theatre (ACT), 700 Union St., Seattle, 206-292-7676. Tickets cost $37.50 ($10 for students, $15 for those 25 and younger), and are available online.