Tavern Story, Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Each character here is so intent on what he's saying that he keeps talking even after someone else begins speaking, forcing both characters to repeat themselves several times before proceeding. This approach to dialogue places us squarely in David Mamet territory, of course, and when the play's set in a humble bar on Chicago's northwest side and features three none-too-bright guys, a girl, a gangster, and a whole lotta money, we can be fairly certain there's a con going on as well.
What keeps David VanMatre's Tavern Story well clear of parody, however, is the introduction of such exotic elements as a bona fide murder (if anything in this genre can be certified bona fide) and a ghost whose apocalyptic visions of a flood might not explain the onstage events but provide an entertaining distraction from the swindle--so diverting, in fact, that audiences may be extremely puzzled by the surprise ending. Rick Snyder directs a stylish production featuring muscular performances by Ron Dean as a lovesick tapster, Keith Kupferer as his bewildered attorney, and Kenn E. Head as the oracle, who communes with spirits of both the ectoplasmic and alcoholic variety. Tavern Story offers an engaging 90 minutes and a glimpse of a playwright who, if he's not conning us again, shows a great deal of promise.
--Mary Shen Barnidge