At least since 1983--when Chicago's Lionheart Gay Theatre produced what Variety reported was the first "AIDS play," Jeff Hagedorn's One--numerous playwrights have probed the moral and medical implications of the disease. Such writers as Larry Kramer, Susan Sontag, William Hoffman, Harvey Fierstein, Tony Kushner, Alan Bowne, Craig Lucas, Robert Chesley, and Michael Kearns have addressed the topic overtly, while others like Stephen Sondheim (in Into the Woods) and Scott McPherson (in Marvin's Room) have dealt with AIDS indirectly. Their output has run a gamut of styles and attitudes: from journalistic to absurdist, from romantic to raunchy, from poignant to polemical, from hysterical to hilarious. But none that I've encountered has been so stiff, sterile, and downright mopey as Lonely Planet, Steven Dietz's well-meaning but tedious new work.
Lonely Planet is written with compassion and concern; Dietz has known his unfair share of young people who died well before their time, and his sorrow clearly motivates the play. But he's failed to transform his thoughts into believable or compelling dramatic action. Fatally, this two-person character study is populated not by real people but by oratorical alter egos who represent the writer's conflicting impulses; they speak in tidily crafted, unspontaneous mini- essays posing as conversation.
Set in "a small map store on the oldest street in an American city"--a dark and cozy little den in Jim Dardenne's set--Lonely Planet strives to portray the relationship between two lonely men: Jody, the shop's owner, and Carl, his friend and sometime customer. The two are nearly perfect opposites: Jody is methodical, organized, and quiet, while Carl is impulsive, sloppy, and brash. Jody is dressed (costumes by Gayland Spaulding) in humbly collegiate slacks, shirt, and sweater, every button buttoned; Carl wears jeans and a leather jacket. And where Jody reacts to the plague that is killing off his friends by retreating--moving into his shop and gradually shutting out customers--Carl tries to cling to the people he's losing: every time a friend dies, he takes a chair from the dead person's house and stores it in Jody's shop.
The chairs, piled higher and higher in every scene, dramatize the obsessive-compulsive complex that some people develop under stress; they also dramatize the mounting death toll. In Ionesco's The Chairs, which Carl cites in a telling reference, a mass of chairs represent an existential emptiness; here, every chair means a life that's gone.
The maps Jody displays but apparently never sells are the metaphorical counterpart of Carl's chairs. Maps, Jody explains, are man's futile attempts to impose order on a messy world; inevitably they reflect only one flawed and flattened perspective. Jody compares the familiar but misleading Mercator projection, which overstates the size of land masses such as Alaska and Greenland, to the more accurate Peters projection, which solves what cartographers call "the Greenland problem"--how to depict Greenland while still focusing on more significant land masses like Europe and North America. "People I know are dying," says Jody, with the pedantic literal-mindedness that generally weighs down Dietz's script. "That's my Greenland problem."
Dietz uses Jody and Carl's differences to express his own confused responses to AIDS--his impulse to organize his feelings, like the Apollonian Jody, versus his impulse to wallow in them, like the Dionysian Carl. But Lonely Planet is all too much like Jody's maps: it puts labels on everything, reducing the messy richness of humanity to neatly arranged, instructively colored images. It accurately identifies points on the AIDS psychic landscape--grief, despair, anxiety, fear, and occasional gallows humor--but it never brings those points to anything like vigorous, passionate life. Dietz dramatizes his characters' contrasts so deliberately that he robs Jody and Carl of any reality; and though Carl insists, "I need my irony," the proceedings are leavened by precious little humor, despite sidelong references to such subjects as boring fat-free diets and the absurdity of putting pretty stamps on mail to people you hate. Jody's prissy neatness and Carl's eccentricities are so obviously contrived for amusing contrast that the humor falls flat. A famous story about the great actress Lynn Fontanne has it that she criticized a fellow actor's bit of comic business involving a cup of tea: "She's not asking for a cup of tea. She's asking for a laugh." Lonely Planet has the same problem.
An Evanston Review interview with Dietz makes much of the fact that the playwright is a heterosexual who "made no attempt . . . to make a statement about AIDS from within the gay community." Yet by making his characters homosexual Dietz in effect does just that--unsuccessfully, because Jody and Carl are only different aspects of himself, not convincing gay people in their own right. Making Lonely Planet about a straight man with gay friends--a situation closer to Dietz's own--might have kicked more life into the work; so might dumping some of the big symbolic flourishes in favor of interesting action.
And so might putting the script in the hands of a director who could have challenged the material with an outsider's insight. Instead Dietz stages his play's world premiere himself, guiding his capable two-man cast--William Brown as Jody and Phil Ridarelli as Carl--into one pitfall after another. Brown's speeches are filled with pregnant pauses and mellifluous intonations that, given the stiff material, seem overly actorish as he pursues the mini-epiphanies that dot the dialogue. And Ridarelli's kookiness is too obviously calculated for Carl to look like a genuine oddball. You can almost hear the director's voice counting "one, two, three" as Ridarelli gets ready to make what's supposed to be a surprise entrance, or "three, two, one" as Brown sits somberly under an exquisitely dimming light while above him we see yet another image, albeit a beautiful one: a glowing Apollo 17 photo of our lonely planet, hanging small and blue in an expanse of infinite darkness.
On a related note: Songwriter Brian Lasser will be honored with a memorial on February 1 at the Theatre Building, 1225 W. Belmont, at 7 PM. Lasser, a former Chicagoan whose clever and sensitive music delighted many here before he relocated to New York with his partner, singer Karen Mason, died of AIDS-related complications in November.