Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Florida Stage: Yankee Tavern (6 reviews)

Florida Stage opened the world premiere of Stephen Dietz's Yankee Tavern on May 15, 2009.

From the acclaimed playwright of Lonely Planet, Private Eyes and Fiction, comes this dramatic thriller set in a crumbling tavern in New York. A young couple is caught in a web of conspiracy theories surrounding the 9/11 attacks, when in an instant outlandish hypothesis becomes dangerous reality as critical facts continue to emerge. A highly praised election from the 2007 1st Stage New Works Festival.

Michael Bigelow Dixon directs a cast that includes Antonio Amadeo, Kim Morgan Dean, William McNulty, and Mark Seisler.

The Sun-Sentinel has declined to review this production*.

Jan Sjostrom reviewed for the Palm Beach Daily News:
Dixon paces the play as best he can, and sees to it that the various emotions are well-pitched and the clues don't go unnoticed.

Antonio Amadeo creates a complex portrait of the conflicted Adam. Mark Zeisler's Palmer, the stranger, is appropriately grim and threatening. Kim Morgan Dean's Janet is by far the most interesting character, moving from tolerant humor to downright terror. William McNulty as Ray is a bit too jovial. Richard Crowell's down-at-heel set is so well-executed it's like another cast member.

There's enough good material in the play to make it possible for Dietz, who's a superb playwright, to shape it into an edge-of-your-seat thriller. As it stands, it's only half-way there.
Brandon K. Thorp reviewed for the Broward/Palm Beach New Times. It seems that he enjoyed the show;
...Steven Dietz... proposes a universe populated by skeptics, where conspiracy theories abound, Occam's razor rubs backward, and a boring, factual explanation of anything must be a lie.
Because of a lopsided script — which gives Amadeo approximately one line for McNulty's every ten, and Dean far less — Ray, though affable in a gruff way, comes off as a bully. Yet slowly, subtly, his arguments cohere. As the outside world slips away and your workaday disbeliefs are suspended, you may find yourself believing.
...I marveled at set designer Richard Crowell's magnificently dilapidated barroom; I applauded the subtly mounting anxieties peeking through the friendly cool of Amadeo's Adam. I'm also a reasonable person, and I can look at the way act two explodes in a whirlwind of paranoia and violence as art for art's sake, even though it has a claim on reality roughly approximate to that of the fairy contingent in A Midsummer Night's Dream. In these terms, Yankee Tavern is one helluva show.
But with reservations:
A good night at the theater is worth a lot, but it is not worth increasing that number (of citizens that believe that the federal government had prior knowledge of the 9/11 attacks). By failing to include any cogent alternatives to Ray's theories and by giving us no choice but to accept that the events of act two really are indicative of a conspiracy to cover up the truth behind 9/11, Dietz may have succeeded in selling a bill of goods that he never bought in the first place.
If I had a wicked streak in my sense of humor, I might suggest that if Dietz had included cogent alternatives to some of the wilder speculations, the conspiracy theorists might have interpreted that to mean that Dietz's play was simply another piece of government propoganda devised by the NSA as a means to lull the theatre-going public into a false sense of security.

Mary Damiano reviewed for Miami Artzine:
Dietz’s play is engaging and interesting, full of funny tirades and food for thought, but it switches gears abruptly in the second act, careening from quirky comedy to sinister thriller. The play comes alive when McNulty is on stage, his performance is luminous enough to light the whole theatre. The other cast members get their big moments and do well with them, but Yankee Tavern belongs to McNulty. Richard Crowell’s scenic design is another highlight—his attention to detail makes the tavern look as if it’s been housed at Florida Stage for 40 years.
Kevin D. Thompson reviewed for the Palm Beach Post:
If you’re into conspiracy theories, Yankee Tavern will get all the conspiratorial juices inside of you flowing nicely. Unfortunately, the show premieres at time when the country is finally moving past the horrible events of 9/11.
Although solidly acted, Yankee Tavern feels a little dated. The show would’ve probably played better three or four years ago. Some theatergoers may be reluctant to see a stage production that still conjures up such bad memories.
I have to point out that the same could have been said of The Diary of Ann Frank. Mr. Thompson my be bringing too much of his own baggage into the theatre with him. Shouldn't good theater, like any art, push us to the edge of our comfort zone, if not outside of it altogether?
Yankee Tavern features a capable cast, led by McNulty, who plays Ray as zany and kooky, yet still sane enough where you can’t completely dismiss his more outlandish theories. Meanwhile Zeisler is effectively hitman sinister and X-Files mysterious despite briefly flubbing a few lines during Friday night’s opening performance.
Hap Erstein reviewed for Palm Beach ArtsPaper:

...with this world premiere, Florida Stage is back in its strength of language-based, political plays, deftly directed by Michael Bigelow Dixon and well performed.

McNulty’s Ray could be dismissed as a nutcase, if he were not so well read and persuasive. Even if you do reject everything he says, the actor remains compelling. His ingratiating way with improbabilities is in marked contrast to Zeisler’s Palmer, a character of uncommon intensity, even before he opens his mouth.

Dean is the audience’s surrogate, rationally rejecting each conspiracy theory until they reach critical mass of undeniability. And Amadeo is well cast as fuzzy-headed barkeep Adam, amiable until he finds himself caught in a crossfire of double-crosses.

Aiding the evening’s credibility is Richard Crowell’s realistic, though dilapidated tavern set. And notice how sound designer Matt Kelly adds to the production’s mounting tension with a barely audible background thrum.

The American theater has a rich tradition of barroom plays, of which Yankee Tavern now becomes a part. Here’s a toast to Dietz and his play, which should work its way through the nation’s new play network with the staying power of a juicy conspiracy theory

Bill Hirschman reviewed "special to the Miami Herald":
The show is competently directed by Michael Bigelow Dixon and well-acted by the cast, although all of them have trouble getting any electricity going except for one second act scene between Dean and Zeisler.

Kudos are due Richard Crowell who designed a gloriously grimy wreck of a New York bar that Eugene O'Neill's characters would love, complete with dark wood paneling and a tiny TV over the bar with aluminum foil on the antenna.

As with most premieres, Tavern needs more work. The first third of the show could be tightened; it's mostly Ray spinning an unending procession of theories. They're entertaining but there is no absorbing conflict to keep us hooked until the stranger appears.
Yankee Tavern plays through June 21 at Florida Stage .

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