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‘Yankee Tavern’ Still Implodes With 9/11 Speculation in Davidson

A man stands in a bar seemingly ranting while the bartender looks on unimpressed. A chalkboard shows drink specials for Yankee Tavern
Bill Reilly as Ray and Matt Stevens as Adam in ‘Yankee Tavern.’ (Photo by John McHugh)

Over the years, Steven Dietz has favored Charlotte with plenty of spookiness and suspense. We’ve seen his most acclaimed works in fine local productions, including God’s Country, Lonely Planet, and the oddball Becky’s New Car. On a couple of occasions, we’ve been singled out for some of the earliest transitions of Dietz’s scripts from page to stage.

Most recently — and spectacularly — Children’s Theatre and Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte teamed up to commission a pair of upstairs/downstairs spookfests from Dietz: The Ghost of Splinter Cove and The Great Beyond.

Since 2009, when Actor’s Theatre presented Yankee Tavern as part of the New Play Network’s nationwide “rolling world premiere,” we really haven’t experienced how Dietz uses his surreal, supernatural, and conspiratorial toolkit to address daily American life.

The current revival, directed by Matt Webster at Davidson Community Players and running through Oct. 8 at the Armour Street Theatre, also gives us the opportunity to see how well Dietz’s wild theorizing still holds up three election cycles — and three U.S. Presidents — later.

If anything, the suspense seems to work better now since Webster’s cast, in pedigree and natural inclination, comes across as less cerebral, readier to go with the flow of an action yarn liberally sprinkled with spycraft plus a pinch of the inexplicable.

Having been previously confronted with two actors who might plausibly place the roles of Hamlet and Lear on their bucket lists (Matt Cosper and Tom Scott) as Dietz’s Adam and Ray, I can see in retrospect that I may have resisted following on the suspenseful path that these protagonists were designed to take us.

It’s easier to be ambivalent about Matt Stevens as Adam, the seemingly wholesome owner of the Yankee Tavern, and Bill Reilly as Ray, the crazed-or-visionary vagrant who lives in the empty hotel above the bar. Together, they take us down a rabbit hole of coincidences, suppositions, and conspiracy theories that might account for America’s total defenselessness on the morning of September 11, 2001, when airliners crashed into the Twin Towers in lower Manhattan and both skyscrapers stunningly collapsed.

Two amazingly perfect demolitions of two fully-occupied, high-profile landmarks, presumably built to last and zealously guarded — within the space of 46 minutes. You didn’t need to be close to Ground Zero to be struck with shock and wonder.

But the closer you were to the World Trade Center or the people who perished there, and the more narrowly you yourself escaped, the more you could be expected to obsess over the mountains of evidence, facts, theories, legends, and numerologies that were left to explore or were mysteriously obliterated along with the rubble.

Ray, the raffish vagrant, seems to have gone overboard, a fountain of conspiratorial spew that points in multiple directions here and abroad, adding to his confusion and ours instead of clearing the fog.

A man in a suit and a woman in a Friends shirt sit at a table in Yankee Tavern discussing something intensely
Matt Stevens as Adam (left) and Cordelia Hogan as Janet in ‘Yankee Tavern.’ (Photo by John McHugh)

Adam and his fiancée Janet seem to mischievously indulge Ray’s weird futility, voicing their skepticism to get the freeloader to be more passionate about his disorganized beliefs — and perhaps prodding him to spout new bullshit they haven’t heard before.

The badinage gets out of hand when Janet carelessly reveals that Adam has collected Ray’s voluminous ravings into book form for his master’s thesis. Outraged by this betrayal, Ray has some secrets of his own to reveal about his betrayer.

Reilly renders Ray with such eccentric looniness that anything he says draws skepticism, beginning with his nocturnal conversations with the ghosts who haunt the boarded-up hotel rooms above, including Adam’s dad. Are these symptoms of madness or sources of insight?

There are some compromising secrets that Adam is hiding from Janet. How damning these secrets are depends on how truthful you think he is in explaining his ongoing relationship with his ex-professor.

At first, Cordelia Hogan strikes us as a bit irritating as Janet with her persistent suspicions and distrust, so we tend to empathize with Stevens and his protestations of innocence as Adam. Things slowly change when the lights come up on a new scene with a quiet stranger seated at the bar, mostly facing away from us.

He’s sitting with two bottles of Rolling Rock beer perched on the bar, subtly evoking the Twin Towers, but he’ll refuse to drink one of them – leaving it full in memory of a friend that he never saw after the Towers’ collapse. In his quiet way, Palmer is as obsessed with the mysteries of Sept. 11 as Ray, but he has been more relentless and roamed further, driven by the unsolved death of his close bud.

Inside Yankee Tavern (Photo by John McHugh)

When Steve Schreur breaks his silence as Palmer with a startling confession of wrongdoing at the colossal Twin Towers crime scene, a monologue that transforms his demeanor from a humble cop on the beat to a crusading zealot, the net of mystery and conspiracy widens to include Adam, his ghostly dad, and Yankee Tavern as focal points.

This may be Palmer’s first stop at the crumbling sports bar, but it isn’t his first sighting of Adam — and he also seems very well-informed about the ex-professor and her machinations. He definitely has his suspicions. Now we will reassess the mild-mannered Stevens and maybe see him as craftier, more secretive, and spy-like.

You may also start wondering at this point whose side Palmer and Adam are on in this geopolitical tapestry, and you may believe there really could be a deal breaker on the horizon for Adam and Janet’s engagement.

At this point, we’re also caught up in the psychology of straining toward belief based on the devilish wisps of evidence and inference and eye-witness testimony that Dietz has doled out.

The playwright, Webster, and his cast have all done their work well; the design team have created and sustained the playwright’s lazily surreal atmosphere; so the intended coupling will likely occur. Our speculations about Adam and Palmer will likely sprout fresh speculations about 9/11.

We’re built that way, which is precisely Dietz’s point, whatever the truth of history might be if it is ever untangled.

Problem is, Dietz couldn’t factor in 2016 or 2020. A U.S. President who had lost the popular vote might conceivably orchestrate a catastrophe to rally the dubious electorate behind him. That could be worth the trouble for W.

‘The Yankee Tavern’ will be at Armour Street Theatre through Oct. 8. (Photo by John McHugh)

Until the Orange Marvel came along, who knew that a sitting U.S. President could simply squat down on a toilet seat and remediate the situation by merely proclaiming, with two posable thumbs and a Twitter account, that he had actually won the lost election by a landslide?

Of course, that grim update won’t prevent the flareup of confusion and speculation we will feel when Dietz springs his ending. It’s a brutal reminder that the hotel above the action isn’t the only place that is haunted. Yankee Tavern is also spooked — and so are we. Maybe more than ever before by the incurable virus of conspiracy theory.

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