Few topics have undergone the kind of intensive stage scrutiny accorded AIDS in the last decade. While fresh statements continue to be made, lesser new plays on the subject tend to look all the worse when inevitably held up against the genre’s peaks to date. Steven Dietz’s new play is, unfortunately, a case in point.
The two-act “Lonely Planet” proves a dismayingly thin if well-intentioned passage through familiar waters. While the word “AIDS” is never spoken, the script stretches a few simple metaphors to the snapping point in the service of pat messages of tolerance that have been explored with greater punch many times before.
Jody (Michael Winter) is the middle-aged owner of an unnamed city’s map store. His best — only? — friend is younger Carl (Laurence Ballard), a compulsive liar who fabricates endless careers with the “energy of eight and the patience of none.” At the start, Carl announces that “Bobby” (his lover? Jody’s ex?) has died. He hauls in the first of umpteen “abandoned” chairs that soon turn the stage into a virtual seating warehouse.
It’s rapidly evident what these chairs signify. Eventually reclusive Jody must overcome denial to face the possibility of his own highly personal connection to the plague.
Since the few big revelations here can be spotted a mile off, one might expect Dietz to fill “Planet’s” two hours with strong character writing, novel structuring or a fresh authorial perspective. No such luck. Their histories left blank, Carl and Jody just banter, when not expounding on obvious map metaphors (e.g., the “rational distortions” of cartography vs. the “real” world’s messy joys and injustices) or delivering equally lofty monologues to the audience.
“Lonely Planet” nudges at the absurdist tradition (specifically in homage to Ionesco’s “The Chairs”). But it stops short of a stylistic commitment, in both text and the author’s own San Jose Rep staging.
Playing roles conceived for them, Ballard and Winter are fine actors who do all they can, still landing short of fully rounded, interesting personalities. Scott Weldin’s set is also fine, if unimaginative; Rick Paulsen’s lighting works hard to shift moods and underline passages of alleged import. A publicity memo asks reviewers not to divulge the symbolic meaning of the chairs. As with everything else about “Lonely Planet,” the surprise is vastly overestimated.