In its first London revival, Steven Dietz’s play is still moving, funny and heartfelt 25 years after its release, writes Arun Kakar
First premiering in Illinois’s Northlight Theatre in 1993, Lonely Planet is the most widely performed work of Steven Dietz, eighth on the list of most produced American playwrights – equal to Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee.
The play is set in 1980s in an anonymous part of America and is about a friendship between two gay men set against the backdrop of the AIDS crisis. The precise location is Jody’s Maps where its eponymous owner Jody (played by Alexander McMorran) is, like the maps he sells, precise and methodical, waxing lyrical about how maps ‘reduce our reliance on hypothesis’.
His best friend, the sprightly Carl (Aaron Vodovoz) visits the shop every day, but Jody never knows what he does for a living, or much at all for that matter. Carl makes up his occupations – sometimes he’s a journalist for a ‘disreputable tabloid’; other days he is an art restorer or glass shop worker. He conjures up stories of increasing absurdity and hilarity: a news story is turned into a religious event with imaginative delight in one of the play’s comedic high-notes.
It seems for much of the first act that we are on course an odd-couple screwball until the truth slowly begins to unspool: Carl and Jody are gay, and it is the height of the AIDs epidemic. It becomes clear that Jody hasn’t left his store for weeks, and Carl continues to brings chairs into the store, an unexplained action that is revealed with dramatic impact in the final act. These chairs clutter the already cramped space, offering a looming sense that something tragic is happening in the world outside.
What is most affecting about Lonely Planet (and this play is affective in several ways) is how it approaches its subject. Defiantly funny and resolutely human, it is a play about friendship, fear and grief – its portrayal of the AIDs crisis still feels relevant and original over 25 years later.
Jody and Carl are not romantically involved, and their respective lives are wrought with great nicety and humility, brought out through their (mostly) convivial relationship – they are a sort of platonic married couple. In one of the highlights, the two dual with poster tubes, trading accents and archetypes with childlike glee. It’s a sequence that, like the play, is weaved in between moments of melancholy and occasional despair.
Director Ian Brown and his crew capture this fluctuation by making the store organic as it evolves into a prison for Jody, who is badgered in increasingly inventive ways into accepting the reality outside by Carl. It reaches peak unsettlement when Jody has to leave for a blood test – we aren’t told what for – and both his and society’s paralysis comes to an uneasy head.
Diez’s script is rife with metaphors and references, most explicit of which is Eugene Lonesco’s absurdist farce The Chairs, that’s bleak humour and central relationship it takes many of its cues from excellently. A reference to Joe Cocker’s version of Bob Dylan’s I Shall Be Released on the other hand is a rare awkward flourish that sits uneasily with the play’s tone.
Lonely Planet is a splendid play. Vodovoz and McMorran are superb and have effortless chemistry. They deliver a pertinent message of fellowship, rendered with power and empathy. The theatre has extended into a series of speakers over the course of its run from prominent doctors and therapists. In sharp contrast to the Orlando Bloom-starring Killer Joe upstairs, this 100-seater thrust forsakes legroom for intense immersion, and is well worth seeing on its short run.
Lonely Planet runs until 7 June at Trafalgar Studios
Arun Kakar writes for Spear’s