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Theatre in Review: Lonely Planet (Keen Company/Theatre Row)

Arnie Burton, Matt McGrath. Photo: Carol Rosegg

Lonely Planet, a 1995 work by Steven Dietz, is an expression of agony, wrapped in artifice, inside a practical joke. It's a strange, sideways view of the AIDS epidemic, written as the disease was decimating the gay community, and it alternates a bizarre, borderline cryptic, sense of humor with a plainspoken account of the terrible facts of life at that moment in time. It has a naturalistic surface, yet it also pays open homage to Eugène Ionesco's The Chairs. And it doesn't really work -- until it does.

Jody, a gay man in his forties, owns a store that sells maps; in Anshuman Bhatia's set design, it's exactly the kind of cozy, attractive little shop that one could spend an hour in, browsing. We never see any customers, however; instead, the place is invaded -- brazenly and repeatedly -- by Carl, a friend of Jody's, who brings with him chairs -- office chairs, club chairs, wicker chairs, you name it -- which he proceeds to deposit on the premises. Carl, who seems to have a personality for every occasion, also claims to have a bewildering number of professions -- among others, art restorer, tabloid reporter, crime scene technician, and owner of an auto glass shop.

You'd think that Jody -- no matter how much he tolerates his friend's eccentricities -- would find such intrusions to be unacceptable, wouldn't you? But, for all his complaints, Jody is unable to stop the flood of furniture that soon renders the space useless as a venue for commerce. Then again, Jody keeps forgetting to put out the "open" sign. He has been ordering his meals in. There's a sofa in the back room. And when, challenged by Carl to go outside, he stands in the doorway, frozen, incapable of taking the step that would put him in a world where, daily, his friends are dying off.

And maybe Jody's chances aren't much better. As we gradually discover, the source of his quietly expressed terror is the fact that he hasn't yet had an HIV test. He has been lying to Carl about it for who knows how long. He prefers the comfort of not knowing the worst, a choice that, increasingly, has left him paralyzed, unable to get through the day. And Carl's seemingly outrageous behavior with the chairs is, in part, an attempt at forcing him through the doorway and into the real world.

Lonely Planet is a halfway house of a play -- part vaudeville, part outpouring of grief and fear -- poised, sometimes uncomfortably, between metaphor and hard reality. In a production as naturalistic as this, nagging questions remain: How is Jody getting by without leaving the store? How is Carl -- who appears to be a self-appointed clean-up man, dealing with such details as bills and correspondence left behind by his late friends -- supporting himself? And, really, why the chairs? At first, the two men indulge in a series of games -- Carl tells outrageous lies and Jody tries to catch him out, or Jody recounts his dreams, which are usually altered by Carl's cameo appearances -- that reach a little too hard for camp humor. (A scene in which the men take part in a mock swordfight, using rolled-up maps as weapons, is painfully arch.) As attractive as Bhatia's set is, especially as lit with such variety and detail by Paul Hudson, the play would benefit from a more abstract environment, in which its gamesmanship and role-playing would feel more at home. Jonathan Silverstein, has found an ideal cast and he has guided them faultlessly through the script's hairpin turns. Matt McGrath, an actor of seemingly infinite invention, catches each of Carl's moods and fancies, plausibly creating the sort of extravagant creature who lives entirely in a series of ever-changing realities. His idea of an amusing activity is making a list of "child stars who were miserable in later life." Pretending to be the owner of the auto glass store, he stands his ground when Jody suggests he might be elsewhere, simply noting that "it was quiet night for thuggery," giving this odd locution exactly the right twist to make it hilarious. As he himself admits, he has an urgent, chronic need for irony, "the penicillin of modern thought." But he is also possessed of a pent-up fury at a society that dares to suggest that people who die of AIDS were, after all, asking for it, reserving its tears for such "innocent" victims as young children or unsuspecting women.

Arnie Burton, working in perfect harmony with his costar, underplays skillfully, landing his laughs with sly, throwaway remarks. ("Friends, though, are a mystery," says Carl. "Jackets with fringe," replies Jody, by way of offering an example.) He is equally deft with backhanded compliments, calling Carl "the little brother I never wanted to have." He brilliantly handles a speech in which Jody explains the distortions seen on a Mercator projection map -- for one thing, Greenland, which is quite small, looks bigger than South America -- then explains how we all use similar distortions of reality as a strategy for getting through each day. ("People I know are dying. This is my Greenland problem.") And the power of understatement is on vivid display as Jody calls for the results of his HIV test; the pause that follows is stunningly pregnant with unspoken emotion. Burton is best known these days as a cutup in farces like The Government Inspector and The Thirty-Nine Steps, and a quick-sketch artist in David Ives' nutty one-act fancies; here he reminds us that he has many more colors in his palette.

The rest of Silverstein's production has been attractively arranged. Emilie Grossman's props fill out Bhatia's set with evocative details. Jennifer Paar's costumes are just right for each character, contrasting Jody's no-frills preference for khakis and crewnecks with Carl's highly individualistic looks; the white ankle boots are an especially inspired choice. Bart Fasbender's sound design parcels out bits of Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released," as sung by Joe Cocker, a number that plays a part in the script.

Seeing Lonely Planet was an almost combative experience; even as I resisted Dietz's setup, I fell under the spell of his writing and the performances. We seem to be living in a retrospective moment regarding the gay community and AIDS. Torch Song, at Second Stage, revisits the years just before the horrors began. Later in the season, we're getting the National Theatre's scorching revival of Angels in America. Current movies such as Tom of Finland, about the erotic artist some tried to censor during the epidemic, and BPM (Beats Per Minute), about the Paris outpost of the Act Up movement, provide other points of view. You can pick at Lonely Planet all you want -- I certainly did -- and yet Dietz gets at something hard to shake off about the way gay men had to deal, daily, with death, and the importance of friendships in such terrible times. Keen Company was right to revive this troubled, troubling play just now. -- David Barbour

(23 October 2017)

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