When it was first produced in New York in 1994, Steven Dietz’s lightly absurdist Lonely Planet was called “coy and strained” in the New York Times. In a review of a second production the following year, the Times said that, “at two full acts,” it “can definitely cloy” but praised the performances of Mark Shannon and Denis O’Hare. This two-character play dramatizes the terror of the AIDS epidemic through the relationship between Jody, a gay man in his forties who owns a map shop in an unnamed American town, and his fanciful also-gay friend Carl, who keeps bringing a series of chairs into the shop. These chairs are from the homes of their dead friends and acquaintances, and they pile up symbolically throughout the play. (There is an extended reference made here by Jody to Ionesco’s The Chairs, a classic of the absurd that serves as a rough model for Dietz, who is after something more naturalistic.)
Since it barely seemed to get a pass from critics the first time around, Lonely Planet does not seem like the sort of play that would make for an obvious revival. In this new production from the Keen Company, which is directed by Jonathan Silverstein, it does indeed feel too long, and the second act is inferior to the first. But the writing in the first act is cogent and judicious, or so it seems as played by Arnie Burton and Matt McGrath, both of whom give the kind of detailed performances that can only come from extensive preparation and concentration. Burton and McGrath are both slightly older than the characters as written, and this might be why the play has more gravitas than it likely did before.
Burton plays Jody and McGrath plays Carl, and they work up such chemistry together that they really do seem to have known each other for a long time. Burton sometimes tilts his body beguilingly at an angle, yet there is still something very grounded about the way he approaches his part. McGrath has the flashier role, and he makes the most of it from his first entrance. Carl is playful with Jody, who is more of a stick-in-the-mud and a worrier. They are believable friends because they are so unalike — an introvert and an extrovert — and so they do need something from each other.
As Lonely Planet goes on, it is revealed that Jody hasn’t left his shop for a long time because he is afraid of getting an HIV test, which he keeps putting off. Carl does everything he can to distract and help Jody to get out the door and do what he needs to do, and there is a very touching moment where Carl wonders why they never fell in love with each other, which stands as a tribute to how rare a really fine friendship can be. Lonely Planet could still use some cutting, but it is slightly better in some ways than its first reviews might indicate, and that’s what can happen to a play when it is given a superior production with deeply felt performances.