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Lonely Planet

Theatre Review by James Wilson - October 19, 2017

Arnie Burton, Matt McGrath
Photo by Carol Rosegg

In an uneasy world and during anxious times, maps offer a sense of orderliness and manageability. "They are a picture of what's known," a character from Steven Dietz's Lonely Planet tells the audience. After all, maps provide the means for navigating the earth and minimizing the chance of losing oneself on the way to point B from point A. Although Lonely Planet takes place in a map store, Jody, the shop's proprietor, and Carl, his best friend (and apparently sole customer), have few such assurances. Maps and globes offer little comfort for these two gay men when the world around them is rife with plague, and their friends are dying at an alarming rate.

First produced at the height of the AIDS epidemic twenty-five years ago, Lonely Planet has been revived by Off-Broadway's venerable Keen Company. Jonathan Silverstein has directed the cast of two, and the production generally balances the absurdity, quirkiness, and underlying trepidation at the core of Dietz's play.

The play's premise is straightforward, and the plot is relatively uneventful. Jody (Arnie Burton) is fearful of venturing beyond the confines of his store, which, according to the program description, is "on the oldest street in an American city." (Anshuman Bhatia's design is spot-on in capturing the shop's claustrophobic and antiseptically pristine cartographic environment.) Jody has insulated himself from society, and he frequently neglects to turn the "Closed" sign to "Open," probably in hopes of keeping the outside out. Carl (Matt McGrath), a brash and dandified aesthete, who "has the energy of eight and the patience of none," frequently disrupts Jody's solitude. The two men pass their time together jousting, playing truth games, and bickering. Jody regales Carl with reports of his dreams, and Carl recounts half-baked tales of his protean professional identity, which shifts from art restorer to auto glass shop worker to tabloid writer.

Carl's latest avocation is collecting chairs, and he stores them in Jody's shop. The chairs, we soon learn, are the remaining effects of the friends and acquaintances who have succumbed to the unnamed disease ravaging the community. In due time, Jody's store is filled with an assortment of kitchen, dining room, desk, and rocking chairs. There are so many chairs piled up, the characters have difficulty finding a place to sit.

Even before the characters reference the well-known absurdist playwright, many audience members will have already recognized the conceit drawn from Eugène Ionesco's The Chairs. In both cases the accumulating chairs connote absence, hopelessness, and post-apocalyptic debris. In addition, Lonely Planet conjures allusions to other absurdist plays and playwrights, and there are times when Jody and Carl seem to be surrogates for not just Old Man and Old Woman from Ionesco's play but also Vladimir and Estragon from Beckett's Waiting for Godot. And an unrelenting subtextual terror, which is heightened by frequent pauses, evokes associations with Harold Pinter.

The explicit and implicit intertextual connections sometimes detract from the effectiveness of the play as these come off as inorganic and self-consciously writerly. As a result, the absurdist elements and the burdensome weight of symbolism often occur at the expense of character development and relationships. That said, I found Jody's symbol-laden monologue about the sixteenth-century German Mercator map haunting. The map's disproportionately large rendering of Greenland, referred to as the "Greenland Problem," threatens to overwhelm and dwarf the rest of the planet just as the rampant virus outside is becoming all-consuming.

As the existential odd couple, Arnie Burton and Matt McGrath are wonderful, and their performances compensate for perceived frustrations in the script. In the past several years Burton has become one of New York theatre's most versatile comic actors. In The 39 Steps, Peter and the Starcatcher, and most recently The Government Inspector, he has proven himself to be a most endearing and hilarious clown. As the melancholic Jody, he makes an indelible impression. Fortified with a stoic expression, he exhibits a Buster Keaton-like mask that is etched by life's absurdity. He occasionally lets his guard down and emits sparks of mischievousness.

McGrath also has a number of dazzling comic credits to his name, including last year's The Legend of Georgia McBride in which he played the uproarious drag queen Miss Tracy Mills. In Lonely Planet, his is the far showier part, and he is a camp dynamo. He seems to be channeling Oscar Wilde with his over-the-top expressions of ennui, and he hurls barbed epigrams as defense against an uncaring world. For instance, as a way to combat the pandemic societal boredom, he bitchily admonishes, "Don't step out your door in the morning until you've thought of something interesting to say." Yet, there are moments when McGrath as Carl exposes the character's own vulnerabilities and reveals underlying bitterness and dread.

A lot has changed since Lonely Planet first appeared, but the play points to the overpowering sense of precariousness and palpable fears in our own era. The political landscape and metaphysical terrain may keep shifting, but a new Greenland Problem seems to constantly emerge.

Lonely Planet
Through November 18
The Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street between 9th & 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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