“Blame the government.”

It’s a mantra we hear time and time again – when taxes go up, when we get parking tickets, when we get Norovirus. But blaming the government for the deaths that occurred on Sept. 11, 2001 is not an idea that most people are comfortable with confronting.

Like it or not, that’s exactly what Steven Dietz’ play “Yankee Tavern” is about. Opening last weekend at the Bartell Theatre, “Yankee Tavern” puts forth the conspiracy theory that our own government may have intentionally planned 9/11 for reasons unbeknownst to the public.

The majority of support for this conspiracy comes through the mouth of Ray (Mark Snowden), a homeless man who lives in the abandoned hotel above his late best friend’s New York City bar, the Yankee Tavern. Though Ray spouts the type of laughable theories you might expect to hear from the homeless – the U.S. moon landing was staged, Disney brought about the end of communism and tried to get the story rights – the majority of his theories actually make sense. In fact, some are so plausible that the audience cannot entirely discount his arguments about 9/11.

For example, Ray argues that big oil companies rigged the 2000 election in favor of Bush so that Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” would scare the world into saving the planet.

“It’s outrageous and it’s ingenious,” Ray exclaims, “because the moment the ‘average person’ thinks they can ‘make a difference,’ at that moment Big Oil is always off the hook.”

Next, Ray argues that the greatest conspiracy of all was the Kennedy assassination, which happened exactly as the nation saw it happen.

“One gunman, a couple of bullets from a book depository–boom: case closed,” Ray claims. “The real conspiracy was the conspiracy itself.”

It’s clear from his demeanor that the audience can’t rely on Ray – the man steals suits from the dead after wakes – but he’s so likeable and persuasive, we want to believe him. And when he begins presenting evidence for the 9/11 conspiracies, he makes us wonder if maybe we’re the crazy ones for not believing something so obvious.

While the story is compelling and the writing is tight and witty, the acting is a bit problematic. Mark Snowden stumbles over his lines, though this is understandable given that he controls close to three-fourths of the dialogue. Impressively, he smooths over his blunders by making his character even more of a likeable, though babbling, old man.

On the other hand, bar owner Adam (R. Peter Hunt) and his fianc?e Janet (Netalee Lev Sheinman) leave much to be desired. Though they each have their shining moments, ultimately their relationship is less than believable.

Redeeming the play in terms of acting is Jason Compton, who plays a mysterious stranger named Palmer who keeps showing up at the bar. Keeping the audience guessing whether his character is a CIA agent, a ghost, a spy or just an ordinary man suffering the loss of his best friend on 9/11, Compton is riveting. Arguably saddled with the toughest role of all – to turn the play entirely on its head – Compton does so by commanding authority and allowing the audience to forget for a few moments that this is, after all, just a play.

In the actors’ defense, the set works against them, making it nearly impossible for them to establish authenticity. The stadium-style wrap-around seating pulls the set lengthwise along three tables set up in a row across the stage. This forces the actors to do figure eights around the tables to speak to the entire audience, which is ultimately distracting and inauthentic.

Minor imperfections aside, “Yankee Tavern” is important for one crucial reason: It encourages its audience to challenge the veracity of national government. It’s no coincidence that the Bartell chose to stage “Yankee Tavern” – a play that demands that viewers think carefully about who they elect to public office – during an election year. The Bartell itself is adorned with posters and paintings made by local artists speaking out against Gov. Scott Walker’s alleged hidden political agenda and the dangers of not being politically educated.

Well before the curtain call, “Yankee Tavern” convinces its audiences why it’s so important to be an active member of civil society. And if that’s not success in art, what is?

“Yankee Tavern” runs through March 10 at the Bartell Theatre. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased by calling 1-800-838-3006.

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