Like it or not, the cry goes up, even if it is only furtively muttered, or held as a private, almost-but-not-quite-shameful thought: Oh, God, not another AIDS play. It's a cry that knows no class distinction, nor one of sexual orientation. It's merely an expression of intellectual and emotional exhaustion. With this plague decimating so many thousands upon thousands of people, plays about its impact have proliferated to match the urgency. This season alone has seen major productions of five, or six.
And, just when think you can't take it any more, blessedly along comes "Lonely Planet" by Steven Dietz, which turns one's perception of what an AIDS play is on its ear. Neither socio-political screed like "Angels in America" nor shriek of outrage like Larry Kramer's plays ("The Normal Heart" and "The Destiny of Me") nor an earnest melodrama of relationships like so many others, "Lonely Planet" approaches its subject from a heretofore undramatized perspective.
This one is about the fear of AIDS, about the victims who are not victims. Yet. And how the disease impacts on their lives. It sounds awfully direct, but like the fear itself, the play's theme creeps in through the back door, and hits when you're too thoroughly entertained to resist.
The story, about two gay men, seems simple enough. It takes place in a store called Jody's Maps. The proprietor Jody (Mark Shannon), who is for much of the evening, our narrator, tells of an enigmatic customer who came in one day, another young man, name of Carl (Denis O'Hare). Carl was cagey about his backstoryaddress, occupationand yet, because he was so extravagantly cagey, so clearly and even mischievously blowing clouds of obfuscation, Jody began to look forward to Carl's daily visits. And now they are fast friendspurely friends, in no danger of becoming lovers.
But Carl seems to be putting that friendship to some kind of test now. Seemingly on a daily basis, he brings chairs into Jody's store. Chairs of all kinds. It makes Jody angrier and angrier. Yet he doesn't get rid of the chairs. That would require leaving the store. And as we discover, that is the one thing Jody can't bring himself to do.
For he has become agoraphobic. And to venture outside means to acknowledge his mortality. As for the meaning of the chairs...I'll leave some surprises for the playwright.
Under the sensitive direction of Leonard Foglia, on a splendidly designed (and, with the myriad chairs, magnificently propped) set by Michael McGarity, the two actors, Mr. Shannon and Mr. O'Hare, play off each other with Swiss watch precision, the first as the latently haunted straight man (in the showbiz sense of the phrase), the second as a most impressively dry comic foil.
"Lonely Planet" is a play of literate language, eloquent metaphor, great humanity and humor andprecisely when it counts the mostheart wrenching subtlety. I hate to say something as wrong-headed as, it gives AIDS plays a good name again: one would like a cure to mandate their necessary end...and until then, it's not as if we don't need the good ones (or even the bad ones as reminders).
But the fact is: it does give AIDS plays a good name again. And keeps us mindful of the fact that, whatever else is true, they can still be art of the highest order...
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