On some days, Carl works as a reporter for a supermarket tabloid. On others, he's the official plant waterer for a corporation. On still others, he's a crime scene investigator, an art restorer or a technician at an auto glass repair shop.
His friend Jody leads a much simpler life. He owns and operates a small shop that sells maps.
The peculiar but ultimately profound friendship between these two lonely men is at the center of Steven Dietz' tearjerker of a play, Lonely Planet, currently running at the Vortex Theatre. This small but emotional play deserves a much larger audience than the half dozen or so people who came to the theater to see it last Saturday.
It takes a long while to figure out why Carl (Colin Jones) is bringing chairs to the map shop by the dozen. Eventually, the clutter he creates becomes almost unbearable. Even when Jody (Dean Eldon Squibb) flips the store sign to "open," which he rarely does, the shop doesn't offer a pleasant browsing experience. More and more chairs pile up in the store, but Jody still prefers the shop to his home. He sleeps in his shop. He broods there. He waits for Carl to bring him soup and dry rolls.
For a reason that remains a mystery throughout the first half of the play, Jody has come to prefer two-dimensional representations of physical space rather than direct experience in the world itself. The mystery of his depression and fear, along with the mystery of the chairs, gives this play a surreal quality during most of its run time. It also provides a platform for several enjoyable jokes.
Still, even if Lonely Planet is a funny play, it's certainly no comedy. At its core is a highly moving examination of the AIDS crisis. After well over two decades of addressing this crisis, of course, it's getting harder to do anything original with it. Many people without a direct connection to AIDS and the destruction it's sowed are getting compassion fatigue. Yes, it's a crisis. Yes, it's brutal and awful and nightmarish. But can we please talk about something else for awhile?
The beauty of Lonely Planet is that it gives the audience a chance to reconnect emotionally with this horrifying tragedy. It accomplishes this by addressing AIDS in a subtle and highly original manner. The disease is never mentioned by name. There isn't even any direct mention of the fact that Carl and Jody are both gay men. Using simple chairs as both abstract symbols and tangible artifacts of the disease's ruthless impact, while also focussing on how it affects these two friends, gives the audience a powerful new way to understand the crisis. The revelation about Carl's secret role in all this, which I won't spoil, is particularly moving.
Jones and Squibb both do a good job with some tricky material. The set incorporates lots of cool, colorful maps and globes, and I don't think I've ever seen so many different kinds of chairs in one place in my life. Likewise, the rockin' music plays an integral part in the drama.
In his notes on the play, Dietz quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson: "Make yourself necessary to someone." It's precisely because these two men have accomplished this feat that their story achieves such a dramatic emotional climax. The play isn't preachy. It isn't political. It's just deeply personal and tragic.
Fill up the theater. This one needs to be seen.