Chicago Theatre Review
A Tall Tale Without End
Yankee Tavern – American Blues Theatre
The jukebox in Yankee Tavern suddenly stopped on that fateful morning of September 11, just as the first highjacked plane hit the towers of the World Trade Center. It was, ironically, in the middle of playing Don McLean’s classic, “American Pie. The coin-operated music box has sat suspended in silence ever since that day.
Mystery, excitement, unexpected humor and complex relationships spiral within a play that spews out conspiracy theories like oatmeal in the folktale, “The Wonderful Porridge Pot.” Adam inherited his dad’s tumbledown tavern. Located in Lower Manhattan, this sparsely populated, century-old watering hole is near Ground Zero. Janet, Adam’s lovely, levelheaded fiancee, helps out at the bar when she’s not busy tending to the final preparations of their upcoming wedding. Adam, who’s finishing his thesis in International Studies is, meanwhile, anticipating a notice from the city that confirms they’ll soon be demolishing the building to make way for a more modern establishment.
Ray, an aging barfly, who spends his days in the tavern, was the best friend of Adam’s father. Ray claims that he regularly converses with him and the other ghosts who roam the hallways above the bar. He also believes that everything’s a conspiracy and finds joy in sermonizing and spouting his views.
On this particular day a reticent, reserved stranger wanders into Yankee Tavern ordering two beers, for himself and one for his departed friend. Palmer says very little, at first, but eventually we find that he knows a lot more about this bar, these people and the 9/11 attacks than anyone should. Suddenly the lines between conspiracy theories and reality begin to blur and the relationships between all four characters begin to change.
Steven Dietz’s dramatic thriller, written in 2007, is a howling, humorous, hallucinatory play that mesmerizes the audience while gripping them firmly until the final moments. With this production, Joanie Schultz challenges theatergoers to be open to the truth, to see things clearly and to reconsider the world’s view of an incident. Theories, not only about the 9/11 attacks, but those concerning the Kennedy assassination and the moon landing are bandied about in this play. Ms. Schultz has drawn exceptional performances from her talented cast and has staged her production with care and focus, allowing us to savor Dietz’s intricate writing. Grant Sabin’s dark wood-paneled set is warm and remarkably detailed, with its complete, working bar setup and decor, vast picture window overlooking the city and its intricately-detailed mosaic tiled floor. It looks as if it’s been lifted directly from the streets of New York City. It looks timeworn, yet with special old world charm. Brandon Wardell’s lighting both illuminates the interior of the tavern and makes the outside world visible, without being a distraction.
As previously mentioned, the cast is terrific, especially the always brilliant Richard Cotovsky, as Ray. This Jeff Award-winning actor, who’s brought his theatrical genius to such productions as “Uncle Bob,” “Hellcab” and “Superior Donuts,” creates an easy-going, very natural character whose every word rings with truth and conviction. Cotovsky makes Ray funny, sympathetic and likable. He’s the glue that holds this entire play together. Steve Key initially brings a quiet dignity to the play that later bursts with passion and a need to be heard and taken seriously. His performance is realistic and stirring. As Janet, Darci Nalepa, whose considerable talents have been enjoyed at Remy Bumppo, American Blues, Griffin and the Gift Theatre, is again remarkably natural and believable in this production. Her scenes with Ray and Palmer, and especially with Ian Paul Custer, as her fiancee Adam, are faultless. Mr. Custer, so excellent in “It’s a Wonderful Life: Live!” and “To Master the Art,” is empathetic and convincing as a young Everyman, protecting those he loves, while harboring his own secrets.
This is one of those productions that’s essentially flawless. It offers a memorable evening of humor, intrigue and thought-provoking storytelling, that binds audience members together in a special way. Joanie Schultz’s production is complete and unrelenting. As the audience gradually comes to understand these four characters, gathering more and more information from them, their views evolve and change. However, before the theatergoer can make any real judgements and formulate opinions about what he’s experienced, the mystery and tension builds to a frightening conclusion. Steven Dietz has said of his play that “a conspiracy theory is simply a Tall Tale without end,” and in this play there’s always a bigger tale waiting to be told.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented February 20-March 22 by American Blues Theater at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-404-7336 or by going to www.americanbluestheater.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.