Sunday, October 22, 2017

Lonely Planet

In Steven Dietz's two-character play Lonely Planet, Jody (the subtle and smart Arnie Burton) owns a map store. He loves and is comforted by the factual information contained by maps. On an array of shelves, he moves a map over a hair; quiet exactness is his thing. Jody wears simple, nondescript clothing. Carl (the not-quite-right Matt McGrath) is anything but quiet, and what he does for a living is not clear. The jobs he sometimes claims include fixing car windows, restoring art, and dusting for fingerprints. He tells Jody that he does not make things up; he lies. Carl wears a different odd, stylish, and/or flamboyant outfit each time we see him.

Burton, McGrath
Photo: Carol Rosegg

As the play begins, Jody is alone on stage. He tells us that one day a chair appeared in his shop. He looked at it; he sat on it. We soon find out that Carl brought the chair, although it will take a while to find out why.

Lonely Planet, written in the early 1990s, is now receiving a decent revival via the Keen Company. Although it never says so, it is an AIDS play, and in some ways it is dated--many people are living long lives with HIV--and in some ways it is not--friendship, denial, and grief will never go out of style.

Lonely Planet's main strength is its elliptical approach to death and grieving, along with the ability to represent an epidemic through two characters. Dietz is found of symbols; some work quite well, while others are heavy-handed. (We don't have to have a character reading Ionesco's play The Chairs to get the reference.) The friendship between the men is both a strength and a weakness. It is lovely to see a play about friends, but Lonely Planet never quite convinces us that these particular two men would be so close.

This production is mostly solid, but not totally. There is a lot of emotion in Matt McGrath's performance, but he just isn't fabulous in the way Carl is supposed to be fabulous. (I also didn't believe that Carl would wear some of the clothing chosen for him by designer Jennifer Paar.) Also, I completely didn't believe that Jody would use a rolled-up maps as a "sword" in a play fight with Carl, nor that he would want his folded maps thrown around. I also think that, when Carl carelessly picks up a map of Chad, Jody would take it from him, put it back in the drawer, and smoothed it with his hands. Small details, but important nevertheless.

Lonely Planet runs about 100 minutes with an intermission and should be 85 without one. There is a perfect moment to end the play, when Jody again looks at an unexpected chair in his shop and tells us, "I looked at it. I sat on it." It's a subtle yet hard-hitting moment. The play continues more to tie up Dietz's symbols than because there is more story to be told.

Lonely Planet has definite power and is extremely moving at points. Despite its faults, its strengths ultimately outweigh its weaknesses. I still wish it had been better.

Wendy Caster
(5th row, taken by friend)

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