‘Yankee Tavern’ at Riverside Theatre

Christopher Schmidt, left at bar, Patrick M. Byrnes, behind the bar, Emily Verla with Patrick M. Byrnes at the table in ‘Yankee Tavern’ at Riverside Theatre. Photo courtesy Riverside Theatre

By Pam Harbaugh

You’ll go on a ride so far down into the rabbit hole of conspiracy theory that you won’t be able to find your way back in Riverside Theatre’s production of Yankee Tavern. But you’re happy to stay there because you’ll get treated to some terrific theater.

This two-act drama is written by one of America’s most prolific and thought-provoking, award-winning playwrights, Steven Dietz. Here, he weaves a rich brocade of doubt and fact into a fanciful, but oh-so-believable plot that takes on some of America’s most conspiracy-laden subjects—from hanging chads to the 9/11 tragedy.

Emily Verla and Patrick M. Byrnes in ‘Yankee Tavern’ at Riverside Theatre. Photo courtesy Riverside Theatre

Not one to shy away from seductive playfulness in his writing, Dietz, in a program book essay, invites the audience to prepare for the fanciful yarn-spinning before the play starts. “The air is thick with invention,” he writes.

The play is set in a bar known as the Yankee Tavern, a broken-down bar in an abandoned hotel about to be torn down. As the lights come up, Adam, the owner, is preparing for the day’s business.

He’s also in the midst of a fight with his fiancée, Janet. They are planning their wedding, their own rocky union paralleling the shaky ground of our own country. Janet is furious that Adam has given her a list of people to invite who don’t even exist. Adam wants her to drop the subject. Slamming a chair to the ground, we immediately see how strongly he feels and perhaps disproportionately so.  Does he have something to hide? Why doesn’t he want Janet to contact his mother? The questions begin immediately.

Patrick M. Byrnes, behind the bar, with Steve Brady, left at table, with Emily Verla in ‘Yankee Tavern’ at Riverside Theatre. Photo courtesy Riverside Theatre

The tension soon breaks, though, when Ray enters. He’s a penniless man but a beloved customer, who gets drinks always on the house. Looking very much like one of America’s homeless, Ray wears headphones with a microphone sweeping toward his face. He sees Janet’s Starbucks cup and immediately launches into a non-stop rant about the number of stars on the Starbucks cup having to do with a dark corporate underbelly. That tirade slips into other ones about the moon landing and St. Gore (Al Gore) and finally he speaks into that little microphone on his headphones. We now learn that he’s been on hold, waiting to say his long and involved piece for a radio show as he strides off stage into the lavatory.

Actor Steve Brady serves up a most delicious portrayal of Ray. It’s a master class in acting watching him adjust gait, voice, posture, rhythm and gesture into a lovable, entertaining, unforgettable soul. Brady is just so doggoned good in his role that he owns the show without chewing one bit of scenery or stealing a whit of focus from another character. In fact, his is a generous form of acting—one bringing out the best in others on stage.

Emily Verla and Steve Brady in ‘Yankee Tavern’ at Riverside Theatre. Photo courtesy Riverside Theatre

And yes, you’ve seen Brady before on Riverside’s stage. He’s shown extraordinary range, most recently as the sophisticated, secretly sexually charged art curator in a three-piece suit in Bakersfield Mist and before that, the locked in, intellectually driven psychoanalyst in Freud’s Last Session. Here, his Ray, amidst all the blustering, rambling speeches informed by deep conspiracy theories, has tender moments with Janet with whom he plays peek-a-boo and later comforts her after she is rocked by a confrontation with a stranger.

This stranger’s presence comes unexpectedly. He sits at the bar, orders two Rolling Rocks, scoots an empty stool closer to him and sets the second beer in front of it. As the action unfolds, we wonder just who is this person and what does he know? And more so, why is he there? Is he following Ray who might be unwittingly caught up in star chamber intrigue?

As secrets are suggested and ultimately revealed, the question as to this stranger’s motives get oddly clearer and murkier at the same time. You’ve gone so far down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories that there’s no way back to the light of truth.

Emily Verla and Patrick M. Byrnes in ‘Yankee Tavern’ at Riverside Theatre. Photo courtesy Riverside Theatre

Emily Verla brings such believability to Janet, taking her through a range of emotions. She fleshes out Janet as a most likable, strong but wounded creature, who frets over the safety of Adam. Patrick M. Byrnes shows Adam as an angry young man buffeted by his father’s suicide and his frustration with his fiancée. He saves his gentlest moments, though, for Ray, which makes us wonder how solid his union is with Janet.

Christopher Schmidt makes the perfect Palmer, the stranger who toasts the second beer that is never drunk. We expect a little bit of what he will show, but the surprise will lead us wondering just what is real.

This Steven Dietz play is a delightful one for Riverside’s creative team to mount. Director/designer Allen D. Cornell crafts a production laced with rich visuals and rising character reveal. The bar itself is beautiful “olde tyme,” its shelves loaded with glasses and bottles and festooned with postcards over the ages. A model of what could be a Yankee Clipper sailing ship sits on the top shelf alongside 18th century stoneware crock jugs. Genny Wynn’s lighting design adds the perfect kiss to Cornell’s scenery.

This is such excellent theater. The visuals are perfection, the drama is solid and stunning and the cast entertains from the get-go. Don’t miss it. Just be sure to get there early enough to read Dietz’s letter to the audience. It’s a sly wink about what’s to come.

Yankee Tavern runs through April 7 at Riverside Theatre, 3250 Riverside Park Drive, Vero Beach, Fla. Tickets are $65. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Wednesdays, select Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. For more information, call 772-231-6990 or visit RiversideTheatre.com.

 This is a version of Pam Harbaugh’s review running in Vero News.

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