Alone amid the AIDS crisis
By Jane Horwitz
Wednesday, May 16, 2012
Tony Kushner’s metaphysical two-play epic “Angels in America” (1992) and Larry Kramer’s furious drama “The Normal Heart” (1985) fumed and exhorted on a shared topic -- the 1980s HIV/AIDS epidemic. Both in their different ways brought audiences simultaneously to tears and fury, and they still can.
“Lonely Planet,” the lovely 1994 dramedy by Steven Dietz, takes a quieter path, but it can still break hearts.
MetroStage has produced a sterling revival of it that runs through June 17. It is acted with such skill and sensitivity by Michael Russotto and Eric Sutton -- under John Vreeke’s direction -- that even the script’s occasional lapses into preciousness don’t really cloy. The production just charms you.
Carolyn Griffin, producing artistic director for MetroStage, knew that bringing in Vreeke, who has a special knack for getting finely detailed, emotionally nuanced performances from actors, would suit Dietz’s script to a T.
The time is 1988, the place a musty map store in an unnamed American city. Jody (Russotto), the proprietor, is a shy, doughy, 40-something gay man with a gray crew cut.
Jody can wax poetic about the beauty and reliability of maps as things you can depend on. Well, apart from what he calls “the Greenland problem.” This, he explains to his friend Carl (Sutton), refers to the phenomenon that on some world maps, flattened out to give sailors accurate longitudes and latitudes, Greenland looks deceptively enormous.
The AIDS epidemic is Jody’s Greenland -- taking up enormous space in his shrinking world. He knows there’s more than death outside his shop, but his heart is filled with Greenland: HIV/AIDS. Beyond his door is a scary world where friends and acquaintances are dying.
That’s why Carl, a younger, more flamboyant man of a more sociable nature, bursts into Jody’s shop at all hours with news of the world in an effort to get his friend to venture forth. But much of Carl’s news lately is of death. To prevent the increasingly agoraphobic Jody from tuning out entirely, Carl starts bringing into the store a chair from the home of anyone they know who has just died. It begins with just one Early American spindle-back chair, but by the second act the shop is chock-a-block.
The play’s bald-faced nod to the 1952 absurdist classic “The Chairs” by Eugene Ionesco -- the characters read and discuss it -- seems like a forced injection of intellectual whimsy, but Vreeke’s low-key production makes it work. Even Carl and Jody’s silly swordplay moment, using rolled-up maps as weapons while spouting pseudo-Shakespearean dialogue, plays easily as do their occasional, not really necessary, remarks to the audience.
A great, unspoken help is Jane Fink’s set. The designer has made the theater’s small stage look like a spacious old storefront. A wide, weather-beaten door with a transom and an aging pull-shade occupies one side of the stage, hinting that the outside world isn’t far off. Near the center sits a large wooden storage counter where Jody presumably does business, if he ever has a customer. It has those wide, shallow drawers for big documents. Scattered about the place are baskets of rolled-up maps.
Sound designer Christopher Baine takes us in and out of scenes with snatches of old rock hits, most particularly Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” in Joe Cocker’s gravelly, barely intelligible cover. A few street noises might have added interest to the soundscape and given more of a sense of the encroaching world, but Vreeke may have wanted “Lonely Planet” to unfold as if in isolation -- as if on the moon, in fact. In a sense, it does. Hung high in Jody’s store is a snapshot of Earth taken by the astronauts of Apollo 17. As the chairs pile up in Act 2, and the plague inches closer, the whimsy in which Jody and Carl like to engage turns out to be nearly as essential to weathering the crisis as the drug “cocktail” medical researchers were struggling then to perfect.