Keen Company’s Lonely Planet: Games People Play in a Plague
Lonely Planet, the new play by Steven Dietz (Bloomsday) presented by Keen Company starts off with a lonely chair in the middle of a small map store on the oldest street in an American city. We find Jody, the owner of the map store, quietly contemplating a beautiful chair and peacefully sitting in the chair. Then like a gust of wind, Carl enters and brings with him the energy, chaos, confusion and joy of the outside world. I was immediately struck at how this map store represented a retreat from the world with its immaculate, spare, open interior. But this single chair, as directed by Jonathan Silverstein (Keen’s Tick, Tick,…BOOM!), is an invasion from the outside and the chairs will slowly fill this space, forcing Jody to face his fears and venture out in the chaos he has tried to avoid.
We get to know Jody and Carl, both gay men and close friends, through the games they play; “Names of child stars who were miserable in later life” or “The game where we tell the truth” Carl is always asking Jody if he has had any good dreams which tend to all revolve around Jody being misidentified as someone who can help and he is afraid that he is not qualified or prepared to offer assistance. He then remembers that Carl is in the dream, reminding him, “Jody, Don’t let us down”. Jody is always asking Carl about his many jobs which Jody finds hard to believe; “You can never pin him down”. But it also reveals why Jody is so in love with his maps, “They are a picture of what’s known.”
Mr. Dietz’s play was written in 1994 during the midst of the AIDS epidemic and we slowly realized that Jody and Carl’s friends are succumbing to the disease. We find that Carl is actually collecting a chair from each friend that passes and bringing it to Jody’s store because he can’t bare to see the chairs left behind after a friend’s home is emptied. He is also assuming the jobs of all the friends who have passed. He also has another motive. Jody has not left his map store in months and is unable to deal with the crisis. Carl is slowly filling the space with chairs until Jody is no longer able to stay a prisoner of the map store and finally must make a decision whether to move forward or stay put. And when will piling of chairs end and become too much for Jody? And how much of this will echo the fatal outcome of the characters in Ionesco’s The Chairs (1952)? Carl holds the answer to that question deep inside.
In many ways, this play felt like a period piece and a play set in the near future. There is a timelessness in how we deal with grief, loss and fear. We now have many medicines to help manage HIV and prolong people’s lives and that gives us such a sense of security. But is our sense of security like the maps in Jody’s store? “They attempt to make order and reduce our reliance on hypotheses.” Are the games we play in times of crisis a part of how we accept the sometimes cruel reality of our given circumstances? Lonely Planet reminds me that with those we love most, these games can be an expression of love and caring during very difficult times.
I really loved Mr. Dietz’s writing and was enamored by the many monologues. I loved how the mystery of this friendship and this world was slowly revealed. Yet, after I was in the play and deeply connected to the character, I hoped the play would accelerate its pace and I felt that this play would be stronger with a few edits and without the intermission. Silverstein’s direction was lovely and as the space filled to the ceiling with chairs, I was impressed how he found new ways of using the space to create intimate and moving scenes. He was supported by a fantastic set by Anshuman Bhatia and prop design by Emilie Grossman. The light design by Paul Hudson was so well crafted as we travelled from morning to afternoon to evening.
That being said, Arnie Burton (Red Bull’s The Government Inspector) as Jody and Matt McGrath (MCC’s The Legend of Georgia McBride) as Carl are ideal casting choices. Mr. Burton brought such subtlety and nuance to the character as he navigated the challenges of leaving the store. When he was finally able to walk out into the world, you felt the incredible vulnerability and courage of this man. Mr. McGrath brought such wit, irony and humor to Carl and he seduced the audience from the first moment he entered the stage. Mr. McGrath has the great ability to make us laugh in one scene and bring us to tears in the next.
Like the Ionesco play often referred to by the two men, this absurdist and tragic farce is heavy with metaphors, stacked up as high as the chairs in the store, so high that it’s hard at moments to see the tragedy and sadness that lies within this story. It feels like the stage is filled with ghosts of invisible guests, as if these two are the last of a dying breed, but unlike the the Old Man and Old Woman in The Chairs, suicide is not the final option. The beauty of Lonely Planet, is that the more one ponders the events, dreams, lies, and numerous metaphors, the deeper and more hopeful the play feels.