Writer: Steven Dietz
Director: Ian Brown
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
It’s taken over 20 years for Lonely Planet to reach Britain, and while this tight two-hander about the AIDS epidemic in America would have been more useful on the stage in the 1990s, it proves to be worth the wait.
To make comparisons between Lonely Planet and Angels in America is inevitable, but perhaps unfair. Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, currently enjoying a successful revival at the National Theatre, is an eight-hour epic, examining not only the AIDS experience, but also the Regan administration of the time; Its vision is broad and its anger is loud. Steven Dietz’s Lonely Planet, written a year later in 1993, is a quieter play focussing on friendship, loneliness and distorted realities; It’s affecting but never angry.
Edmund White, possibly the most famous chronicler of the AIDS period, called one of his novels, The Farewell Symphony, which recalls the devastation AIDS wrecked upon New York. This title comes from Haydn’s Concerto No. 45 in which members of the orchestra snuff out a candle by their music stand and then leave the stage, and by the end of the piece only two violinists remain. By surviving when all his friends are dying, the narrator of White’s novel senses he, too, is one of these violinists, telling the stories of all those who have left.
The two characters in Lonely Planet, Jody and Carl, are also like Haydn’s violinists surviving while others die. Jody, sympathetically played by Alexander McMorran, runs a shop in the city selling maps to places he’ll never go. His friend Carl, played by Aaron Vodovoz with fine verve, comes in and out of the shop telling truths and lies about the outside world. He also brings chairs into the shop and these represent absences like the seats in Haydn’s symphony. However, the first half of the play dances too far from the problems outside, and the games and competitions between the two friends quickly wear thin for the audience. It’s not until the second half that the dialogue comes alight, and with some action, which replaces the previous philosophising, the play comes to life and gains an urgency and compassion to reflect the terror and fight outside.
Jody is frightened to go outside and we are never really sure if his shop is a sanctuary or a prison, and this paradox is helped by Nik Corrall’s meticulous set. While cluttered with furniture (the chairs keep arriving) and rolled-up maps, and while we can almost smell the dust covering the shelves of maps, maps which no one buys, there is still an aesthetic geometry to the design that suggests that the world won’t always be so awry. A neon triangle hangs outside the shop window signifying another dimension, and although it is not pink like the AIDS activism symbol, it’s still a powerful reminder that outside the shop a battle is being fought.
Steven Dietz is one of the most produced playwrights in the United States – in 2010 he was eighth, sandwiched between Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee – and yet he is little known here. Although this production is something of a slow burn, it would be interesting to see more of his work in the future.
Runs until 15 July 2017 | Image:
STAR RATING: 3.5
Summary phrase: Worth the Wait