For Email Marketing you can trust

Lonely Planet

Matt McGrath and  Arnie Burton                      Photo credit Carol Rosegg

                                            By Ron Cohen

In the category of plays dealing with the AIDS epidemic, Lonely Planet is notable for its rather blithe, fanciful ambience. The play, which was first produced in 1991 at the Northlight Theatre in Evanston, Illinois, and saw an Off-Broadway premiere in 1994, doesn’t sizzle with the political anger of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart. Neither does it strive for the epic scope of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America nor hit the deep emotional notes of William M, Hoffman’s As Is.

That’s not to say, however, that Lonely Planet doesn’t have its darker moments. It certainly does, and Keen Company’s trenchant and splendidly acted revival of the two-actor show will eventually tug at your heartstrings. But for a lot of the time, the script may well strike you as entertaining but unfocused as it takes off on absurdist theater, most specifically Eugene Ionesco’s The Chairs, and revels in longish monologues and the obliquely funny but extended give-and-take of the conversations between two friends, Jody and Carl, even as these two gay men live in the shadow of the rampant disease.

The flamboyant, often flip Carl is embodied by Matt McGrath; Jody, a fellow of more gravitas befitting his status as a shop owner, is Arnie Burton. The interplay between Burton and McGrath and their deeply felt portrayals do more than justice to the wit and pathos in Dietz’s script. The sensitive, unforced direction of Jonathan Silverstein, Keen’s artistic director, further allows them to play the script’s most telling moments to their fullest. The only drawback is that some moments become so intimate that the dialogue is lost.  

Jody operates a small map store (beautifully realized in Anshuman Bhatia’s set design), which the program says is on “the oldest street in an American city,’’ intimating the play’s fable-like air, as does the absence of last names for the play’s two characters.

Carl is a sometimes customer and very frequent visitor at the shop. Jody tells us he’s known Carl probably as long as he’s known anyone, but he still doesn’t know what he does for a living. Carl fills the time telling amusing tales of various jobs he doesn’t hold, such as writing for a tabloid newspaper, restoring paintings at a museum, and working at an auto-glass repair shop. One thing he does actually do, though, is collect chairs from the homes of deceased AIDS victims – he can’t stand to see them abandoned – and bring them to Jody’s shop until the handsome space is pretty well cluttered with them.

For his part, Jody regales with us with some piquant recitations about maps or his past or his dreams. The dream monologues deal mainly with him being mistaken for something he isn’t, like a prize fighter or fireman, dreams in which Carl plays a role. The dreams underscore the friendship between the two men, and by extension, the importance of friendship in a perilous environment.

As the epidemic deepens, Jody find it increasingly difficult to venture outside his shop, but under Carl’s urging he finally goes out to have himself tested for AIDS. “It’s five blocks, Jody,” Carl tells him, typical of Dietz’s smart way with dialogue. “It’s a lovely walk. You’ll like it. Okay. You’ll hate it. Maybe you’ll get hit by a car. Would that cheer you up?”

Jody’s decision to be tested leads to the play’s twisty but still unsurprising climax, and despite its clever meanderings, it does make its point about the uses – and sometimes the inadequacy -- of human connection as a bulwark against the mysteries and ironies of fate on this lonely planet.

Off-Broadway play
Playing at The Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row

410 West 42nd Street
212 97 8844
Playing until November 18