By Donna Herman
When Steven Dietz wrote Lonely Planet in 1993, the world was in the 12th year of the AIDS crisis, we didn’t have an effective drug regimen, and we were still mired in the belief that it was a “gay” disease. However, don’t confuse Lonely Planet with earlier works on the subject like Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart or Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. Dietz has written a very quiet, personal play about friendship in the midst of disaster. And because, at its core, Lonely Planet is about the relationship between two people, it transcends the specific circumstances of AIDS in the 1990’s, and feels very fresh and relevant today.
Lonely Planet is set in an unnamed city in America on the oldest street in town, in a small map store owned by Jody (Arnie Burton). The shop is organized and tidy, with neatly framed maps hung on the walls, and racks with maps in precise rows against one wall. A cabinet with slim drawers of maps is against the back wall, and a small table in the middle of the floor upon which maps can be spread out and looked at. In the back is a counter with an old fashioned cash register and a rotary phone with bookshelves behind it. When the play begins, Jody is alone, downstage center looking at a single chair – the only one in the place – and he tells us “One day I saw a chair here. I had no idea where it had come from. I looked at it. I sat in it. (He sits, pause.) A chair. Nothing else.”
Whereupon the door bangs open and Carl (Matt McGrath) strides in, talking a mile-a-minute. He’s bored, everyone and everything is boring. Wearing a suit with an ascot and a coat draped over his shoulders he crosses back and forth, gesticulating and camping up a storm. Attention must be paid. Jody takes it all in, amused, only occasionally trying to break in and ask where the chair came from. Carl ducks the question, and suggests uses for the chair. Finally, Jody looks at Carl and says, “We need to play our game….The one where we tell the truth.” This is clearly a long-standing routine of theirs, with established rules. When Carl says to him “I can’t play our game, yet. I’d prefer to lie a little longer,” Jody accepts that with infinite tenderness. “That’s your choice, Carl.”
Friends they are, of the modern variety. What touched me so deeply about their relationship and what I think Steven Dietz captures so well, is their complete and utter acceptance of each other without judgement. You’re my friend, if you can’t tell me the truth right now, I’ll respect that. It doesn’t mean I won’t talk to you. In this day and age, when there is so much judgement, that kind of unconditional love and acceptance is a balm. To see it actively modeled on stage was mesmerizing. And the performances by both Arnie Burton as Jody and Matt McGrath as Carl were stellar. I felt a real sense of genuine affection between them, and a palpable connection that made the relationship all the more vibrant.
I think what makes Lonely Planet so relatable now, is the sense of danger looming for the characters that makes them feel vulnerable in ways they’re not used to. Jody talks about the Mercator map – the one we all know makes Greenland, which is actually about the size of Mexico, look to be about the size of South America and twice the size of China. This is called The Greenland Problem.
“I like this map. I sell this map. I don’t warn people when they buy it that, like any good newspaper, it contains a few lies… Maybe it’s comforting to us because we, too, have our blind spots. We, too, have things on the periphery of our lives that we distort – in order to best focus on the things in front of us. In order to best navigate through our days. Sometimes, though, these things on the periphery, these things that we do not understand, these far away things grow to massive proportions – threatening to dwarf our tiny, ordered, known world. And when they get big enough, we are forced to see them for what they are. People I know are dying. This is my Greenland Problem.” That’s kind of how I feel these days.
Lonely Planet by Steven Dietz, Directed by Jonathan Silverstein
WITH: Arnie Burton (Jody); Matt McGrath (Carl)
Scenic Design by Anshuman Bhatia; Costume Design by Jennifer Paar; Lighting Design by Paul Hudson; Sound Design by Bart Fasbender; Prop Design by Emilie Grossman; Fight Director, Paul Molnar; Line Producer & Production Manager, Corinne Woods; Press Rep, David Gersten & Associates; Casting by Calleri Casting; Production Stage Manager, Kacey Gritters. Presented by Keen Company, Jonathan Silverstein, Artistic Director. Through November 18th at The Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street. For tickets: Call 212-239-6200 or visit the Box Office at 410 West 42nd street or www.telecharge.com