Steven Dietz's Yankee Tavern is certainly a play for our time. Thoughtful, history-minded theatergoers should be intrigued by the playwright's sullen though neatly constructed thriller, which creatively lays out a tantalizing deconstruction of events leading up to 9/11.
The primary vessel for Dietz's multilayered message is a character named Ray, portrayed brilliantly by Henry Haggard in the new Tennessee Rep production. Ray enters a New York City bar in 2006 and proceeds to lay out a breathless rap about conspiracy theories in general — JFK, hanging chads and, in particular, 9/11, replete with a reverent regard for all the niggling coincidences surrounding that still-startling event.
With his further playful attacks on America's seeming obsession with things like designer coffee and same-sex marriage, Ray is one of those talk radio nutjobs — complete with a working knowledge of waterboarding and, lucky for us, endless energy in his delivery.
Ray is the lead-in to a story that concerns the bar owner, Adam, a grad student in international studies who is soon to be married to Janet, whom we see addressing wedding invitations. Also in the tavern is a monosyllabic beer-drinker named Palmer, who eventually sets into motion suspicions between the young lovers involving extracurricular affairs of various kinds. Then Adam disappears and conspiracy takes center stage again.
Yankee Tavern is a psychological puzzle based on the struggle average citizens have in "trusting our eyes and ears." Not unlike Oliver Stone's film JFK, the play effectively assaults its audience with intriguing circumstantial evidence that may or may not add up, yet makes for compelling theater.
René Copeland's direction is literate and well-paced, and she positions Haggard's concentrated performance as the central building block.
That proves essential, because while the other three actors are in sync with the production's vision, their work is uneven. As Adam, Patrick Waller doesn't always convince. Maurice Ralston, an Atlanta actor making his Rep debut, uses a mysterious staccato delivery when he finally voices the weirdo Palmer. It's a serviceable turn, yet ultimately indistinctive.
Of particular interest is the performance of Cori Laemmel as Janet. Laemmel, also making her Rep debut, is an appealing ingenue who has distinguished herself locally in musicals. In striving to sustain this role — granted, no easy task, as it grows increasingly complex as the evening moves along — she might've relied more on well-modulated understatement than on the pained whimpers that sometimes gratingly convey her rising emotional state. That said, her paranoia is at least poised.
Regardless, Dietz's strong, rewarding script assures that everyone involved arrives safely at theatrical ground zero.
A cinder-block backdrop, monotonous fluorescent lighting, a small black stage, folding chairs for 50, and space heaters — that's what guerrilla theater looks like at 195G Omohundro Place in the warehouse district of the 37210 ZIP code, where the fledgling Theatre Ensemble of Nashville is performing its inaugural production, Romeo and Juliet.
This is unglamorous Shakespeare — in the absence of conventional period costumes, the play's two families are distinguished by sweaters or shirts that are either checks or plaids (honest!). Meanwhile, director A. S. Freeman seems to promote a conversational approach to the language, but does not completely eschew classical style. The result, executed by a cast of varying abilities, is an impatient mix, and runs fitfully past two and a half hours. (At least the space heaters kept cranking.)
Kelly Lapczynski offers the most mature and satisfying performance as the Nurse, while also handling the role of Lady Montague with equal professionalism. Alan Smith's Mercutio is interesting, a James Dean-ish Mad Hatter wearing yellow sneakers. Michael Roark's Friar Lawrence sets sail with promise, yet he falls prey to a penchant for delivering his lines like a nervous commuter who has a train to catch. Jonathon Burgess gives us a hostile Tybalt — good to a point, but he needs diction lessons (as do a few others). The remaining supporting players muddle through unevenly.
Director Freeman is Romeo, and he's physically and technically up to the task, though his readings are sometimes so well thought-out that they lack real tenderness.
If understudy Elizabeth Walsh (in for company co-founder Patti Moore) does nothing else, she reaffirms that this is Juliet's play. Her epic adolescent histrionics catch our attention for a while, until it is clear she's incapable of nuance and we're left with seemingly interminable speeches that are, as Macbeth might have put it, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
The big fight scene (choreographed by Brad Oxnam, who also plays Benvolio) is raw and exciting, and provides the necessary sense of conflict heading toward intermission. Alas, Act 2 just seems to mark time, its well-known death scene notwithstanding.
The show continues through Feb. 20.
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*Alexandra Grace, not Alexadra Grace