The plays that defined the theatrical response to HIV/AIDS functioned, at the time of their premieres, as living chronicles of the lives lost to a merciless and unfathomable epidemic. They also often served as agitprop, a way to force society to open its eyes to a situation it tried desperately to avoid. Many of these works — The Normal Heart, Falsettos, Torch Song Trilogy — have returned to prominence over the last half-decade, now capsules of a past many of us can barely comprehend. By the time I came of age, medical advances had largely turned HIV into a manageable chronic illness, which may explain why I find some of these early artistic endeavors mawkish and overwrought. Had I lived through that era, losing friends and fearing for my own life, I would surely feel differently.
Steven Dietz’s 1994 two-hander Lonely Planet, currently revived by Keen Company, stands apart from its thematic cousins in terms of style. At times maddeningly elliptical, it uses symbolism, irony, and a sprinkling of absurdism to communicate the anguish felt by its protagonists, who spend scene after scene increasingly overwhelmed by uncertainty and loss. AIDS is never mentioned by name, but its specter hangs heavy in the air of the map store where Jody (Arnie Burton) has cocooned himself, unable to face the shifting reality of his world.
“Maps are fixed objects,” Jody tells us. “They are a picture of what’s known.” In times of turmoil, it makes sense to seek comfort in what we can understand. Dressed in pressed khakis and an unremarkable gray sweater (costumes by Jennifer Paar), Jody gives the impression of a man most at home in situations he can control. His surroundings reflect this, too: Anshuman Bhatia’s impeccable set design suggests the kind of curiosity shop where customers might feel as if they’re disturbing a tenuous equilibrium if they try to buy something.
But maps are also someone’s distortion — a fact illuminated by the so-called “Greenland Problem.” Cartographers coined the term in reference to a Mercator map that sizes the tiny island nation as roughly equal to the landmass of the entire African continent. This projection endured for centuries, largely because it confirmed a perception its viewers wanted to believe. Jody’s self-imposed exile is his own Greenland Problem. By remaining ensconced in a world of his own devising, he can avoid the painful truths swirling at its edges.
Carl (Matt McGrath) exists to upend Jody’s denial. He introduces chaos into Jody’s contained environment, literally and figuratively. An unabashed fabulist, he lies about his occupation, alternately presenting himself as an art restorer, a tabloid journalist, a crime scene investigator, and a mechanic. More curiously, he begins filling Jody’s sanctuary with an overwhelming volume of mismatched chairs, which clutter his physical space and, eventually, his mind. The chairs belonged to friends who perished from the unnamed illness; these disparate objects — beach chairs, refugees from kitchen tables, front-porch rockers — offer traces of who they were.
Jonathan Silverstein’s compact production builds in tension as Carl adds more and more chairs to Jody’s showroom, rapidly overwhelming the small and tidy space. You begin to palpably feel the sense of disorientation this produces. It reflects a world overtaken by something strange yet familiar, terrifying but unavoidable. Burton helps matters by playing Jody with intelligence and subtlety. I’m used to seeing this particular actor cast as comic relief in shows like The 39 Steps and The Government Inspector. Here, he delivers a quietly moving performance, scrubbed clean of affect.
McGrath’s performance works best when he channels the pathos roiling beneath Carl’s impish exterior. But he doesn’t quite nail the outlandish comedy that defines so much of the character’s personality and gives credence to his many fabulations. With that element missing, a good chunk of the play’s short but important second act feels like an inevitable march toward serious sentimentality. For Dietz’s play to achieve maximum power, the turn of events should sneak up on the audience; here, it’s largely telegraphed.
Still, Dietz finds other ways to surprise his audience. We never meet Bobby or Philip or Franklin, just three of the many victims referenced throughout the play. But we hear their stories, and we see their chairs. And they often feel more tangibly real than entire characters in some of the more didactic plays on this subject, who stand in for ideas or political agendas. Near the end, Jody quotes from Ionesco’s The Chairs, which clearly serves as an overarching influence: “We will leave some traces, for we are people and not cities.” Lonely Planet poignantly explores the cosmic weight of those traces — a weight that those left behind have to carry.
Lonely Planet runs until November 18th. For more details, click here.