Yankee Tavern introduces us to Adam, a young man working in what used to be his father's bar. He's arguing with his fiancée, Janet, because the names he provided for her save-the-date notices were fictitious, and she's furious. Adam's father committed suicide here — or rather, we think it was suicide, because nothing in Steven Dietz's play is certain. The bar is situated on the ground floor of a hotel peopled with ghosts. And also one live guest: crazy Ray, a conspiracy theorist.
Real-life conspiracy theorists tend to be boring people with bad breath who trap you in curlicues of language that twist together logic and non-logic, fact and fiction so relentlessly that your own grip on reality starts to loosen. Ray, however, being entirely fictional, is an absolutely wonderful creation, perhaps the best thing in the play — and Marcus Waterman's performance in the role is juicy and unforgettable. Ray talks to ghosts and carries a moon rock in his pocket (this is a rock from the real, invisible moon landing, as opposed to the highly publicized 1969 event), hates Starbucks and has formulated a fascinating theory about how the facial-tissue industry created the spores that spread colds and flu. Naturally, Ray believes that the government was complicit in the events of 9/11.
Adam, under the guidance of a brilliant, sexy professor with whom he may or may not have had an affair, wrote a doctoral thesis debunking this idea and the entire conspiracy industry. He's planning a trip to Washington, D.C., to discuss his theories with some people connected to the professor. But the silent man at the end of the bar who's ordered two Rolling Rocks — one for himself, one for the invisible companion who died on 9/11 — appears to have inside knowledge, and he's a lot more worrisome than garrulous Ray. Pretty soon, the bar is filled with a murky sense of menace. Who is Adam, and what, exactly, is his mission in D.C.? Is Janet's life in danger? Can she pull Adam back from the brink? By this point, we're riveted, engrossed in what seems to be a tense, brilliantly plotted noir thriller.
Except that it isn't. You can't make all the odd comments and events of Yankee Tavern cohere into a narrative — and that's because Dietz never intended them to. He's undercut Ray's mind games only to reveal that the entire damn play is his own mind game. Adam and Janet, Ray and Palmer aren't real people; they're figures on a shape-changing Alice in Wonderland chessboard. As Dietz's stand-in (I think), even Ray doesn't believe every plot point he puts forward. Some he does, some he half-believes, some he's just playing around with. The second you think you've set your foot on something solid, Dietz makes the ground shift.
This kind of nonsensical sense is worth experiencing. A recent study profiled in the Journal of Psychological Science showed that reading a surreal short story by Kafka increased cognitive function, as subjects tried in vain to discern structure and, in so doing, created new patterns of thought. Yankee Tavern, too, makes for a fascinating and somewhat dizzying evening. The play has you thinking about all the things you didn't understand about 9/11 and the way that pivotal events — events that initiate wars, alter a people's worldview, change the course of history — are essentially narrative artifacts, created out of chaos and incomprehensibility by politicians, reporters, historians. But in the end, a game is still just a game. You leave the theater feeling as if you've crammed yourself with air — fizzy and flavored air, perhaps, but lacking essential nourishment. And though the experience was a lot of fun, here you are, still empty.