Writer: Steven Dietz
Director: Ian Brown
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Sometimes, the only people you can rely on are your friends. During the AIDS crisis in the 1980s stories of families, neighbours and even whole communities turning their back on the suffering abound, and men learned to depend on one another. Following representations of this era writ large in landmark productions of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America and Matthew Lopez’s The Inheritance, Steven Dietz’s more intimate tale reaches the West End.
Despite seeing each other almost every day, map shop owner Jody and friend Carl hardly seem to know each other at all. Jody cannot leave the shop, fearing how little society cares about the pain and suffering of his friends, while Carl lies openly about his occupation and adventures. As Carl introduces a random chair to the shop he refuses to be drawn on its origins, but as more appear the two men soon find they only have each other to rely on.
Written in 1993, Dietz’s play had its UK premiere only last year at the Tabard Theatre, and now makes its West End debut with a transfer to the Trafalgar Studios in the run-up to Pride 2018. Lonely Planet deals very well with the nature of male friendship and the ability to feel close to someone without necessarily knowing the details of their life. Instead, their interaction is often competitive, with telling the truth becoming a game and in only the second scene the men duel using poster tubes while reciting dialogue inspired by medieval knights, eighteenth-century gentlemen and Star Wars scenarios.
This exploration of the way men behave around one another, of how they interact, is reminiscent of David Mamet’s American Buffalo where the confines of a shop offered a similar tension with the outside world. It does take some time for that world to creep in however and too often, Dietz’s play can feel like a succession of Carl’s false anecdotes and Jody’s recounted dreams without quite getting to the point.
The impact of the AIDS crisis is sensitively handled, and Jody’s fears slowly unfold during the play, while Carl’s daily support for sufferers starts to make sense of his determination to make the world more interesting as a distraction. Dietz’s dialogue suffers from the American tendency to repeat character names every few seconds which becomes a distraction, and is occasionally a little too blunt, giving Jody political speeches to recite, while at others the human effect of fear and grief are more subtly woven into the plot.
As Jody, Alexander McMorran has exactly captured the reticent bookishness of a man who sells antique maps in an independent shop with few customers. His mild-mannered exterior is rarely ruffled but beneath McMorran reveals both the fear and frustration that soon everyone he knows will be gone, while society looks away. McMorran uses Jody’s obsession with different map projections, which he discusses directly with the audience, to reflect his own feelings of the way the crisis is distorting his view of the world.
Initially, Aaron Vodovoz’s Carl is hard to like, dashing in and out of the shop, talking at speed and telling elaborate lies for no apparent reason. But Vodovoz slowly introduces Carl’s kinder side as the audience learns more about him and understands the roots of his behaviour, particularly in the need to focus on the small acts of meaning that make the audience warm to him.
In David Allen’s dusty-looking set, the map shop already looks stuck in the past and the perfect hiding place. While the pace droops at times, Ian Brown’s direction is at its best in the second half eliciting the essential sadness of Jody and Carl’s experience, and why the shop has become a haven for them both. Lonely Planetabjures the epic-scale of its counterparts, to offer a grounded and intimate story of two men with only each other to rely on at the worst time of their lives.
Runs until: 7 July 2018 | Image: Contributed