The conspiracy theories in Steven Dietz's play "Yankee Tavern" sound pretty crazy — until a young couple become embroiled in what may be one of the hugest of all.

This thriller, playing at None Too Fragile in Akron, takes place in New York, where 20-something master's student Adam (Nicholas Chokan) operates his late father's rundown Yankee Tavern. Regulars there include his fiancee, Janet (Diana Frankhauser), and oddball Ray (Robert Branch), the self-proclaimed "itinerant homesteader" who lives upstairs in the boarded-up Yankee Hotel.

For about half of this play, we can laugh off all the wild conspiracy theories that kooky Ray offers. For him, nearly everything in life is a conspiracy. His running commentary at the bar includes theories on everything from JFK and Yoko Ono to weddings, colds and, most importantly, 9/11.

With this crazy character, Branch walks an amazing line between talking like a loon and conveying such intelligence that you just may wonder if his words could carry any truth. Branch — who has a largely balding head with long, wild gray hair on the sides — plays a character who's passionate about the world in his mind and talks to ghosts upstairs, including Adam's dead father Vince.

At None Too Fragile, Branch has played memorable characters who are quirky, crazy or unhinged, such as a hallucinating hermit in Dietz's "The Last of the Boys" and the strung-out Julian Quintana in the insanely funny "Pure Shock Value" by Matt Pelfrey. In "Yankee Tavern," Ray, who also provides most of the show's humor, will go down as another of Branch's most memorable characters.

Dietz is well-versed in writing plays with secrets that are slowly revealed by his characters. The prolific playwright has expertly peeled back secrets in the Vietnam-themed drama "The Last of the Boys," which None Too Fragile produced in 2017, and in "Fiction," which increasingly explores the line between truth and fiction between two married authors.

In "Yankee Tavern," his characters repeatedly talk about how we don't want to believe truths that are right in front of us. This concept extends to the conspiracies they're talking about as well as in personal relationships.

Chokan's Adam is sarcastic toward Ray about all his theories and argues with him. It seems Ray is only allowed to stick around because he was Vince's best friend.

Ray seems totally crazy. But is he?

Janet tries to follow his conspiracies but ends up telling him, "You are just unbelievable!"

"Because you are unable to believe," Ray responds.

This well-written play includes telling foreshadowing about spies and people disappearing in the United States. From the start, Frankhauser plays a fiancee who senses something is amiss with Adam. She distrusts his evasiveness about going out of town for a work opportunity and is upset about some of his secrets.

Under the direction of Sean Derry, this play makes a big shift when a stranger arrives at the bar. Known as Palmer, he says just three key words during the first half of the play.

Palmer, played by Equity actor Jeff Haffner, becomes a threatening, confrontational presence, and things get more complicated the moment Palmer starts talking about his secret role on 9/11.

This is when a sense of paranoia starts to pervade the story, seen primarily through Frankhauser's worried and increasingly panicked Janet.

Throughout the play, Dietz presents nagging questions about Vince's life and manner of death. He also creates unanswered questions about how involved Adam may be in a dangerous coverup.

This 2009 thriller runs 90 minutes with no intermission. Important yet somewhat subtle details in the final moments bring Dietz's suspenseful writing full circle.

As 9/11 theories take over the characters' lives, they just may creep into your mind. As Dietz himself said in his script, tall tales and conspiracy secrets told at a bar can bind people together in insidious ways.

 

Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or kclawson@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her at @KerryClawsonABJ or www.facebook.com/kclawsonabj.