By Tom Titus
NOVEMBER 2, 2017, 4:00 PM
Conspiracy theories abound at a gallop in Steven Dietz's "Yankee Tavern," a far-fetched yet highly involving production now on stage at the Costa Mesa Playhouse.
Set, as the program notes, in an old bar on the ground floor of a decaying hotel in New York City five years after the horrors of 9/11, the play is steeped in wonderment – which of the strange theories advanced by its characters, if any, actually are true? Believe just one of them and Dietz has sucked you into his world.
Director Kathy Paladino has beautifully worked the requisite magic on this four-character opus, which properly keeps the audience mystified until its secrets can be revealed. Even the last line of the play is something of a "gotcha."
In this riveting drama, which offers a decent share of comic relief, Adam (Patrick Peterson) is the young proprietor of the seedy establishment, inherited from his father who died of a mysterious gunshot wound. He and his fiancee, Janet (Carolyn Feres), are sending out wedding invitations – some (his) to fictitious guests.
Only two patrons are glimpsed – old timer Ray (Michael Dale Brown), who deals in heartfelt conspiracies but knows when he's pulling your leg, and Palmer (Joseph A. Manville), who orders two beers, one for himself and the other for his long-deceased buddy.
Brown commands the first act with his outsize anecdotes, touching on the JFK assassination but mostly dealing with the 9/11 attacks and a third building which imploded near the other two. His eloquence is admirable, though occasionally uneven, and his characterization is pure fun to watch.
Peterson's character is somewhat of a paradox, a devoted lover who may or may not have cheated and whose wedding plans might not be firmly grounded. The actor's intensity underscores the conflicting aspects of his character's personality.
Of the four, Feres is the most accessible, striving for normalcy in a sea of subterfuge as she fends off mounting doubts over her relationship. Manville is a man of very few words in the first act, but his character comes brilliantly to life in the second as the plot thickens and his role in it becomes frighteningly clearer.
The story plays out against a highly realistic backdrop, splendidly designed by Michael Serna with brands of beer prominently advertised in neon. It's bolstered by Ryan Linhardt's excellent lighting effects.
"Yankee Tavern" is making its second appearance locally (the first was at Golden West College) and it's probably not the last, given its involving subject matter and richly formed characters. It's a field day for the imagination at the Costa Mesa Playhouse.
If You Go
What: "Yankee Tavern"
When: Till Nov. 19; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays
Where: Costa Mesa Playhouse, 611 Hamilton St.
Cost: $17 to $22
Information: (949) 650-5269 or http://www.costamesaplayhouse.com
TOM TITUS reviews local theater.