Down in Manhattan’s East Village, where Third Avenue meets East 7th, stands the oldest bar in New York City: McSorley’s Old Ale House, est. 1854. It’s a watering hole of the first degree: all dark wood and gloomy lighting, with sawdust on the floor and more than an air of masculinity. (A Supreme Court ruling finally gave women access to McSorley’s in 1970.) Though the owners likely deigned to launch a website, their nod to the 21st century proudly states: “We were here before you were born.”
A lot has happened in a pub that old—deals conceived, secrets revealed—and it seems to inspire the setting for writer/director Steven Dietz’s Yankee Tavern, a sort-of political thriller where 9/11 conspiracy theories are traded in a dive bar in Lower Manhattan circa 2006. What a bar it is—like scenic designer Matthew Smucker dropped the set of Cheers smack in the center of ACT’s Allen Theatre. The play follows tavern owner Adam (Shawn Telford) and his fiancee Janet (Jennifer Lee Taylor), in the midst of planning their wedding while dealing with an onslaught of chatter from eccentric regular Ray (Charles Leggett).
Though it’s billed as a thriller, it’s mostly a comedy for the first act, and a great one at that. Leggett does a stellar job playing the gruff (but endearing) kook who rattles off theories on everything from the moon landing (“a buddy of mine did the lighting”) to weddings (“the American wedding industry is secretly financed by an offshore consortium of big box companies”). Starbucks is a “cult in a cup”—that one got a lot of laughs opening night—and Yoko Ono was behind the Bay of Pigs. You get the idea.
Things tense up when a reticent stranger named Palmer (played by Seattle theater vet R. Hamilton Wright) wanders in for a Rolling Rock or two, muttering mysterious things about the demise of the Twin Towers—and seeming to know more than he should about Adam. Though Dietz can’t nail the reasons why the stranger knows so much, he’s fluent in emotionally wrought pauses. So even if you don’t quite follow what’s going on in the second act, you’re invested in the characters, in the history of this bar, and you’re willing to hang around until the lights go out for the night.
Yankee Tavern is on at ACT Theatre through August 29.