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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Lonely Planet’

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Many plays were written in the first decades of the AIDS crisis. I’d suggest that Steven Dietz’s “Lonely Planet” isn’t destined to be one that will be remembered. In contrast to Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart,” say, which I just saw revived on Broadway — and which seems as vibrant and compelling as the day it was written — “Lonely Planet” has a slightly strained, musty feel.

But the new California Public Theater production, which plays at The Voice Shop through June 26, is still a worthwhile experience, particularly for its dynamic and heartfelt staging accomplished with few resources.

Set in a map store in “any American city” (but obviously one that has suffered a large number of AIDS-related deaths in the gay community), the two-character drama introduces us to Jody (S. Eric Day), the proprietor of the store, and Carl (C. Brandon Weis), a fanatic customer. As the play progresses, the store becomes a fortress of sorts, a place where they hunker down and react to the disease that is carrying away so many of their friends.

Jody has a fondness for the way maps organize the world into meaningful chunks. But, he muses, maps also distort by making compromises when translating the three-dimensional world into a two-dimensional representation. Carl, meanwhile, rattles through a list of job titles — he alternately tells Jody that he is an art restorer, crime-scene investigator and windshield repairman. Both men, it seems, feel as if they are on shifting ground.

Bob Creasy very smartly ekes a lot of impact out of the small Voice Shop space in terms of staging, and his often fluid direction establishes the actors strongly in their physical setting. The audience is seated on risers at the rear of the shop, and the front door of the establishment becomes the front door of Jody’s map shop on “stage.” Small scenic touches suggest the interior of the shop, but they also seem to blend with some of the acoutrements of the actual Voice Shop business set-up. It’s a nice, organic sensibility. What better place to stage a play about a shop than in one?

Dietz includes a number of literary allusions in the play, but the dominant one is to Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist farce “The Chairs.” (To spell it out for everyone, Jody in a heavy-handed moment shares the premise.) No surprise, chairs play a significant role in “Lonely Planet.” The play opens with Carl placing one in Jody’s store. Along the way, more are added.

The symbolism of the chairs soon becomes apparent, and like other aspects of this play, it can feel a little strained. But Creasy’s direction softens the obviousness. In a tender move, he confiscates some of the unused chairs in the audience during intermission and places them on stage, forging an added connection.

The acting is uneven but earnest. Day is wobbly with some of his monologues; he needs to find a way to better project vulnerability without losing an actorly sense of self-confidence. Weis, back in Fresno after a five-year absence, is a welcome re-addition to the local theater scene, and while he struggled at times to find his character’s groove early on, he delivered a consistent emotional intensity on stage. (I liked his monologue about stamps — why can’t we have, say, a raw-sewage postage stamp to send undesirable mail such as bills?)

Both actors have some nice moments together. Their characters are more like stalwart acquaintances as the play opens and really don’t know much about each other beyond the parameters of their daily routines. (Which, when you think about it, describes the vast majority of relationships in most people’s lives.) The most compelling aspect of Dietz’s script, at least to me, is how the deepening of their friendship doesn’t also include the usual full-scale opening up of their lives to each other.

In that regard, the play veers away from realism — shifting more to expressionism — with these characters serving as emotional stand-ins for our own complex reactions to a dread disease. Nearly 20 years after it was written, “Lonely Planet” doesn’t wholly stand the test of time. But it does remind us the fight isn’t over.

Responses to "THEATER REVIEW: ‘Lonely Planet’"

Stephen says:

Ah, you DID see it!

And we agree on many things. A Picasso has a great vibrant script and space, but many directorial flaws and unreasoned acting choices.

Lonely Planet is a flawed script (even during it’s initial release the script is a bit heavy-handed to me), but the directorial choices are accomplished.

Both shows have semi-talented actors (ie, not fit for broadway or even LA), but to me the actors in ‘A Picasso’ never get to realize the possibilites of their talents while the actors in ‘Lonely Planet’ show us the likely top-level of their talents. My guess is there isn’t much more ability left for Eric and Brandon, so your critiques may not be fixable.

To me there were much better choices to be made by Jaguar and Chelsea and much more affecting and effective blocking choices (as you mentioned, Chelsea’s reactions and emotions are often hidden by the side of her face, the distance from the crowd or just the film-worthy movement of her eyes), while I just couldn’t cope with the lack of subtlety and roller-coaster emotional release when necessary.

But my most interesting thought about both plays?

Aileen Imperatrice isn’t known for abstracts and cubism, tho her art was used in ‘A Picasso.’ What Aileen IS known for is her penchant for chairs as a subject matter and her chair art wasn’t used for a play about chairs!

(note for those about to disagree with me: Donald agrees with me. His first four paragraphs of the ‘A Picasso’ review were praise for the script and plot, then he rustles a bit about the acting, pacing and emotions.

With this review seven of his paragraphs show some disdain for the script, while the rest applaud the directing and show minor concerns about the acting).

Eric Field says:

One of the things that I truly enjoyed, when it came to ‘Lonely Planet,’ is how ‘un-heavy’ handed it was. (Particularly regarding the subject matter.)

When told about the upcoming production, there was no mention of it being ‘an AIDS play.’
I was just told it’s name, the play-write, and that it was a two man show that was thought was still relevant. (I had no idea it was a play about HIV-AIDS.)

‘Relevant,’ regardless of one’s gender identity (and status of health) is spot on.

In reality? When people who have long term (or fatal,) illness, are affected (or succumb?)
-they often spend so much time talking about ‘anything,’ but ‘it,’
-yet, at the same time?, they’re talking about ‘it,’ non-stop…

Their private lives remain, (greatly) private… Yet, as the condition is so transformative, (and changes everything,) you see the most private aspects of a persons life -go disproportionately huge,
-and other areas get replaced,(or seemingly become needlessly hidden) -as a coping method.
There is a sense of unease, order has been vaporized and then brought back as cartoon and repetition.
This: a reaction to this new thing in their life, (ie: getting sick, dying, friends dying, strangers dying -and how ‘friends’ are made purely from caring about others who are now ill.)

Eric and Brandon capture this beautifully.

It’s subtle, (and) it is somewhat ‘vintage,’
–but not in any stale respect…
It shows the response to the ‘newness of AIDS’ on a culture,
–and the lines about ‘..how every other sickness is met wtih sympathy and support, (but this) is met with ‘..you’ve deserved this, this is your punishment.’
-still stings.
-But, as a society, over a quarter of a century later is STILL there…

That mindset still prevalent, (illness = stigma,) is not just an embarrassment, but a barometer
It’s making a comeback, -now that advanced age, advanced AIDS, and ‘national healthplans’ are raising all sorts of questions about who and why people should pay for other’s conditions.
HIV-AIDS, and the spectrum of the population represented in the play are frighteningly loosing ground in what grace was gained, I’m afraid.

And the isolation (and point,) of going through this (and many other) illness’ is not just brought out by the acting and dialogue, -but from up within each audience member… -Which, I don’t know about others, but for Me? –is a definite sign that this was work well done.

I felt Eric and Brandon were excellent in this, they did not ‘over-act’ and go bombastic… (so many other HIV-AIDS pieces do.)

(Testamony to this?, you find the first part of the play really building characters for all their quirky beauty, who they are as people, their very odd friendship (as real life is,)
–only to find out eventually that they’re both dealing with the ominous spectre of HIV-AIDS.

This was honest, brilliant and subtle..

And VERY real with how people are in real life. (Not everyone walks up and starts their first conversation (or their 80th) with:
‘..Yeah, So about that AIDS we’re (all seemingly) dying from..’

This depiction and portrayal is accurate and very endearing without being cloying.
This is a warm piece, it’s funny, it’s sad, it’s got class, it’s not syrupy, –and is handled just right.

I found myself talking to the characters (inside) as they spoke on the set…
Many of those conversations having already taken place by those whose chairs are now empty.

Very well done piece, that I’m glad to have been told of..
It’s why I go to ‘approachable’ theater.
It’s why I’m to probably see it again.

Stephen says:

Eric, script-wise you hit it on the head – “-they often spend so much time talking about ‘anything,’ but ‘it,’
-yet, at the same time?, they’re talking about ‘it,’ non-stop… ”

And I just told Eric Day yesterday that I really appreciated the choices in direction and acting NOT to ‘play it gay.’ These men played the characters, without any stereotypical affectations, no accents or lisps or any other crap.

Like you, I knew nothing about the play, and I didn’t even know the characters WERE gay until much later in the play (for those reading this, this won’t be a spoiler at all…I’m careful about that).

And WetTowel, like you I also grew into liking the characters after some time. We always go into new ‘relationships’ with some distrust and caution, and while it took some time, both men became characters I enjoyed. Bob Creasy the director did a very good job allowing some ‘Altman-like’ dialogue, talking over each other’s sentences slightly as the mood struck, giving this older script a modern reality feel. Good choice there.

I have recommended this play to many people, the thoughtful among us who will enjoy a production like this.

Cynthia says:

Just returned from Lonely Planet. Sober, smart production with likeable, natural-acting characters (definitely better than anything on the screens here in Fresno right now).The opportunity to see serious, thoughtful drama in makeshift spaces and championed by earnest people who have little to gain is one of the best things about Fresno. It is how we prove we are sincere; these stages are the “pumpkin patches” of Fresno County. Many quotable lines from this supposedly “fogettable” play: “Irony is the penicillin for modern life.”

eric field says:

Considering the radically different comments from ‘Stephen’ to ‘Stephen’ (after my initial comment) I’m assuming that we’re hearing from two entirely different Stephens…

I do feel it important to clarify something:

I did not ‘grow to like’ the characters as they were on the stage more or anything of that sort.
I didn’t comment back (inside) due accumulated appreciation for either of them.

I’m stating (very clearly) that, the writing, character, and subject matter, -having gone through this scenario with friends over time, in my own life, -was THAT authentic… the acting THAT real and the connection/evocation was immediate.

Further: (Someone above) makes the remark that (the flaws) pointed out by Donald could never get better -never be good enough for LA/NYC, and that the (flawed) delivery of this play is some strained apex… (some doomed hobbled swansong or something.)

From what I experienced in this production? Nothing could be further from the truth.

‘Real’ Acting done well -does not play as acting… (shocking, I know.)
It strikes chords and embodies (not only) the characters of a play -but the people we know, perhaps are, or have known and lost -and are not synthetic homages,
-but finds, and sings the spirit of those times and folks who’ve touched us.

That’s what Brandon and Eric do in this..
That’s why it’s really good, -and why it would be good anywhere (but, thankfully, –is good and approachable ‘here,’ in Fresno, less than 9 feet away.

I know, and have known a tremendous amount of people who have had HIV-AIDS (of all age groups,) gay, straight, whatever…

When I sat there, quietly, with some tears streaming down, privy to the dialogue of these two gentlemen before me, I felt like those who’ve I’ve lost, (or who still hang on, -some doing quite well,) would be honored by this work.
(I want that to be clearly heard and understood.)

Some may or may not call this ‘acting’ –and I’ll let the powdered wigs deliberate and snipe back and forth. (Everyone is entitled to their own opinion.)

But, for me? this is acting that truly works… it dissolved into the reality of the presentation, it did what art is to do, approach you, evoke itself in you, and stay with you –all in ways that build and provide insight, via two people who become someone else, for your benefit.

This is what you go to, pay money for,
–that rarely happens…
(Oh, you can be easily entertained and appreciate the effort of anyone, and so often that’s about as good as it gets, honestly, I don’t have much use for actors who just ‘play or present’ a role… give me someone who becomes it, who ‘is’ it, anyday. If someone is still ‘them’ so noticeably, –and they’re depicting a character? They’re doing it wrong.)

But with all the works that I’ve seen, been a part of, or experienced on the subject, AND all those whom I care for (who are either with us, or gone?,)
This is one piece that, should any of them be sitting beside me, watching what these gentlemen do?,
-I’d not just ‘not be embarrassed,’ by how it was done,
-I find it to be a genuine touchstone, funny, cathartic, heart-breaking, but fitting and honorable.

This is simply really good theatre.
This is why art is done.
This is a difficult subject handled very very well.

When I’m far from here, years from here, I’m going to turn to somebody, somewhere, and say ‘…you know, I saw something really cool in Fresno, once..’ -And I’ll be speaking about this production.

More than that?
As my vocation (and life) calls me to interact with those who are working through HIV-AIDS (and many other illness’)
-I’m going to blatantly remember (and maybe even repeat,) some of those lines,
–and I’m going to have a deeper understanding and better connection with those whom I care for -because of the work these guys have done.

That’s what ‘ringing true’ means, and what I was getting at.

Jody(Eric) Carl(Brandon) and Bob Creasy…
You guys have given me something I can work with and bless others with…
-You’ve also brought justified and peaceful smiles to the faces of a lot of folks whom you’ll never meet (at least on this side, where the chairs remain.)

Thank You.

(it’s why people need to see this, (and) why you need to keep doing what you do.)

-e