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.