Jody and Carl, the only characters in Lonely Planet, are habitués of a sleepy little shop called Jody’s Maps in an unnamed American city. These middle-aged men, intricately rendered in Steven Dietz’s subtle, elegiac script, are being realized vividly by New York stage veterans Arnie Burton and Matt McGrath in a Keen Company production celebrating the 25th anniversary of the play’s premiere at Northlight Theatre in Evanston, Ill. Lonely Planet, winner of the PEN Center USA Award for Drama, was written when the arts were being defoliated by an epidemic beyond the American medical community’s control. AIDS is the background of the play, but not its subject.
Dietz is adept at withholding crucial information about characters and their motivation, calculating the moments when revelation achieves maximal dramatic impact. In Lonely Planet, he brings two dark-horse figures into focus slowly and deliberately. The men are intriguing from the outset; when finally comprehended in full, they’re heartbreaking.
The flamboyant Carl (played by McGrath) sweeps in and out of Jody’s Maps, making colorful pronouncements, some contradicting what he’s said before, and most of them audaciously false. From time to time, he also brings chairs.
Jody (Burton)—calm, steady, and always in the shop—is averse to clutter. “One day I saw a chair here,” he tells the audience, breaching the fourth wall of Anshuman Bhatia’s realistic stage design. “I had no idea where [that chair] had come from. I looked at it. I sat in it. … Nothing else.”
As more chairs arrive, some single spies, other in battalions, Jody demands an explanation. Carl responds with several colorful stories; Jody knows they’re fabrications (and so does the audience).
There’s an air of absurdity about the chairs stacking up around the shop. When Jody mentions he’s reading a play called The Chairs, it becomes clear that Dietz’s imaginative universe is inspired, at least in part, by Romanian-French dramatist Eugène Ionesco, master of the mid-20th-century Theater of the Absurd. (No specialized knowledge is necessary to appreciate the connection between Lonely Planet and Ionesco—Dietz’s dialogue tells the audience enough to clarify the allusions.)
Dietz is an erudite writer who wields his literary and scientific references with a light touch. As specified in his script, the back wall of Bhatia’s set features a photograph of earth from space and two framed maps. The first map is a Mercator projection (familiar from schoolroom walls) that warps the proportions of continents to accommodate straight-line latitude and longitude markings at right angles to each other (inflating Greenland, as Jody observes, to “roughly the size of South America and twice the size of China”). The second map is a Peters projection, representing accurately the size of land masses relative to each other but distorting their shapes, making them fat near the equator and skinny toward the poles.
“A mapmaker takes a messy round world and puts it neat and flat on the wall in front of you,” says Jody. “And to do this, a mapmaker must decide which distortions, which faulty perceptions he can live with—to achieve a map which suits his purposes.”
Directed by Jonathan Silverstein, Lonely Planet isn’t an absurdist exercise like Ionesco’s 1952 comedy-drama; it’s an emotionally resonant play about two men’s changing perceptions of the messy, all-too-real world they’re navigating. The disorder the chairs create on the selling floor of Jody’s Maps is a fanciful, poignant depiction of how out of kilter the pair feel their world has become. They spend their days calibrating their gaze to the gruesome, disappointing visions around them; and they do so bravely—though to say more about that would steal the thunder of the actors and their playwright.
Born in the middle of the postwar baby boom, Dietz is one of the most produced dramatists in the United States. His plays, including Trust (presented in New York by the Barrow Group in 1995) and Fiction (Roundabout, 2004), are staged frequently around the country, though not often in Manhattan.
Burton and McGrath take advantage of all the humor and heart in Dietz’s script, sidestepping anything sentimental or lachrymose. Their impeccably credible performances, thoroughly in tune with each other, outshine everything else about the otherwise fair-to-middling Keen Company production. Lonely Planet, in their hands, is the kind of compelling evening that invites a second visit. In an earlier day (the 1950s or ’60s, for instance), these actors could have anticipated performing a drama of this caliber on Broadway, under the direction of an Elia Kazan or a Mike Nichols. Because of the tough economics of today’s theater, McGrath and Burton are working in a tiny venue on Theatre Row which, by happenstance, affords a degree of intimacy that’s ideal for Dietz’s jewel of a play.
The Keen Company production of Lonely Planet runs through Nov. 18 at the Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row (410 West 42nd St.). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tue.–Thur. and 8 p.m. Fri. and Sat.; matinees are at 2 p.m. Sat. and 3 p.m. Sun. Tickets are available at the Theatre Row Box Office, online at Telecharge.com or by calling (212) 239-6200. Tickets are $65 for all performances (except $20 for Tue.); premium tickets are $80.