By: Iris Wiener
Lonely Planet is a title apropos of Keen Company’s brilliant production, currently running at Harold Clurman Theater at Theatre Row. While Broadway plays are almost non-existent and much of Off-Broadway features political themes and social commentaries, Steven Dietz’s piece is an emotional touchstone harkening back to a time when America was facing a crisis of magnanimous proportions with the AIDS epidemic. That being said, Lonely Planet’s execution is distinct in its subtlety and powerful because of it.
Written in 1993, Lonely Planet follows two friends, Jody (Arnie Burton) and Carl (Matt McGrath) who grapple with a world consumed in darkness, death and doubt. Fear so fully encompasses Jody that he refuses to step outside of his map shop, a metaphorical third character on this Planet. “[Maps] are fixed objects. A picture of what’s known,” says Jody of his love for them. Carl, who is an archetypical eccentric foil to Jody’s calmer persona, frequents the store daily, resorting to different tactics to get Jody to face reality. In what seems to be an effort to get Jody out of his sanctuary, Carl starts filling the store with chairs of all shapes and sizes, the actual rhyme and reason for which is best left for one to discover through a personal experience with the piece.
Both Burton and McGrath are gifted comedic actors, but their humor and large theatrics have been leashed for this intense, stirring play. One never feels that Burton is putting on an act; his warmth is intoxicating, making it all the more devastating when he reveals that he needs to be tested (though for what he has to be tested he never says). His struggle to leave the panoply of chairs that overwhelm his store creates a tight fist in his audiences’ chests. McGrath’s role is more ostentatious, but Carl’s somewhat annoying demeanor quickly grows on you. McGrath finds the truth behind his character’s histrionics and an essential hint at the empathy that creates his character.
There is no question that Jonathan Silverstein’s direction is inherent in helping these warm, yet conflicted men, navigate demons both external and internal. Thanks to his hand, notes of humor never feel forced and are embraced wholeheartedly. The small space at the Clurman Theatre is even more closed-off from the world with Anshuman Bhatia’s clever stage design. The map shop becomes increasingly congested with both chairs and raw heartache.
When this pair of grappling souls finally seem to have found a semblance of peace within themselves, their worlds (or planets, in this case) are turned and forced to refocus. The gentility with which these men process the universe is worth appreciating, as its poignancy and quiet magnitude is a respite from the magnanimous, blatant work prevalent in today’s culture.
The Lonely Planet **** is now running through November 18th. Visit http://www.keencompany.org/lonely-planet/ for more information.
Follow Iris Wiener on Twitter @Iris_Wiener or visit her at www.IrisWiener.com.
Photography: Carol Rosegg