Review: ‘Lonely Planet’ Spins But Never Soars
By Jil Picariello, Theater Editor, October 20, 2017
There’s something off about Lonely Planet. This play should sear and burn, should leave you choking for air. And maybe it did, when Steven Dietz’s two-hander premiered in 1994 at the height of the AIDS crisis. But this revival by the Keen Company seems a bit toothless and the flaws hit you harder than the pain.
Jody, played by the incomparable Arnie Burton, owns a small map store in an unnamed city. We also discover that he is sleeping in the store, too frightened by what is happening outside his shop to leave its confines, far too terrified to get tested for the illness that is decimating his world. His animated friend Carl (Matt McGrath) visits, bringing with him first one chair, then three chairs, then dozens of chairs, an eclectic assortment that Carl has taken from the homes of the recently deceased.
Carl seems initially like a bit of a fool, and his overly dramatic Katherine Hepburn accent amplifies the association. But the accent fades by intermission, and we come to realize that Carl is memorializing this devastating plague in his own way (perhaps this is where the inspiration for the Oklahoma City Memorial came from?). Carl is facing a harsh reality; Jody is hiding from it.
It’s an interesting meditation on the way fear paralyzes and the way grief activates. But the power is undercut by far too obvious references and inappropriate whimsy. Early on, Jody tells us that maps were created as a navigational tool (for a world he can no longer navigate) and shows us the Mercator map, which misrepresents the size of countries (we accept distortion as fact). Can you hear the thud?
There are chairs. Life is absurd. Jody and Carl talk about Ionesco’s absurdist The Chairs, then we see Carl reading it. Thud again.
Jody recites his dreams to Carl and in each he is mistaken for someone who should be able to help, but can’t. Really? Considering how overly obvious so much of the play is, the fact that the illness outside is never identified seems like a frivolous gimmick.
Much is moving, and McGrath and especially Burton, in his isolating terror, leave an impression. But my overall response was to wish I could have seen it back in 1994, when the punch it packs might not have been so muffled.
Lonely Planet presented by the Keen Company at Theater Row’s Harold Clurman Theater, 410 West 42nd Street through November 18, 2017. Run time is 1 hour and 45 minutes with 1 intermission. Written by Steven Dietz. Directed by Jonathan Silverstein; set design by Anshuman Bhatia; costume design by Jennifer Paar; lighting design by Paul Hudson; sound design by Bart Fasbender; properties design by Emilie Grossman. Cast: Arnie Burton and Matt McGrath.
Cover: (l. to r.) Arnie Burton and Matt McGrath in ‘Lonely Planet;’ photo: Carol Rosegg.