By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Beginning in the mid-'80s, the devastation of AIDS opened the floodgates of theatrical imagination, engulfing audiences across the country. The Neptune King of the genre is, of course, Tony Kushner's two-part epic Angels in America, and although the old boy still has some fire left in him, he is doddering and dated and a little shrill now when he pounds and bellows about Reagan-era apathy. Swimming around his feet are a series of smaller, more personal plays that, in the cold contemporary light, are looking a little frayed around the gills too. From the grief-stricken sexploitation of Jerker to the autobiographical desperation of The Normal Heart, gay men in the American theater cried hot, angry, hurricane-force tears for the generation that never had the chance to practice safe sex, nor witness the encouraging spectacle of pro-gay and anti-gay gladiators sending sparks up from their political and cultural swordplay in 1998. These plays will probably always be seminal, if only because they were tear-soaked public displays that brought passion to subsequent, not necessarily related public battles over marriage rights and employment discrimination protections.
To those not living in the center of the plague at its height, however, the plays can seem merely damp. The brilliant Canadian singer-songwriter Jane Siberry told me during an interview the best advice her music teacher had ever given her: "When the singer starts crying, the audience stops." To an HIV-negative gay man in his late 20s who has not suffered great loss from AIDS (knock on wood with a sledgehammer), there is a sense that these playwrights are serving me great steaming bowls of grief rather than giving me the recipe (script) and ingredients (actors) to concoct my own. I could get a contact high from the political radicalism of Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, but once Kushner swooped in for his subjects' close-ups, I felt like I was attending a funeral for a person I never knew, someone who was obviously beloved, because all the other guests and even the pastor were weeping like rainy days.
My ambivalence toward Lonely Planet, the new production by Theatre For a New Day over at Theatre Too, is similar, but this time I don't think it originates in a lack of shared history. Playwright Steven Dietz has created a small, philosophical AIDS piece that lacks both light and heat. This dialogue-dense two-character play is dark and cool--not that these are by any means unacceptable characteristics for theater, as Beckett or the more experimental Albee proves--but at the same time petitions you to share in the sorrow of two middle-aged male friends who are losing their peers by the day. Except for a touching moment or two near the end, I found my sympathies deadened by ponderousness and literary conceits and symbols--dreams, truth vs. fiction, perception vs. reality, and a near-maddening emphasis on maps that, ironically, never gets us where the playwright seems to want to go.
The A word is never mentioned in this tale of Jody (David Benn), who operates a map store, and Carl (Richard Frederick), his charming compulsive liar of a friend, although positive and negative test results are mentioned. It's not a significant omission, but does reflect a conflicted (or perhaps confused) agenda on the part of the author, who apparently wants to be topical and literary at the same time. During long, imagistic exchanges in Jody's store, where Jody has sought refuge from the terror of dying friends and his own unknown HIV status, Carl spins elaborate lies about his employment (he is, variously, a tabloid reporter, an art restorer, and an auto-glass worker). Jody discusses his frustrating dreams (he is a terror-stricken boxer in one, a firefighter facing an anticlimactic inferno in another) as well as the tendency of cartographers throughout history to render maps friendly to voyagers but inaccurate as far as their representations of true continental scale. Meanwhile, Carl begins to fill Jody's store with chairs from the homes of dead friends, even as he edges Jody toward confronting the outside world.
Several times, Lonely Planet references Ionesco's The Chairs, which concerns a senile couple filling a lighthouse with chairs in preparation for a celebrated speaker who turns out to be unintelligible, muttering only animalistic growls where grand pronouncements were expected. Lonely Planet's Carl collects the seats of colleagues passed-on, but the playwright introduces and then lets twist in this play's chill winds of dialogue this and other ideas--as if they are so loaded with symbolism as is, they don't need further development. Ionesco used furniture as a build-up to a punch line--absent audience, incoherent orator--that was a classic, chilling absurdist climax. It's not an unfair contrast, as Dietz chose to make the allusion. He brings the calumny of the comparison on himself.
Once again, I can't help but go back to the idea that the shared experience of AIDS is the caulk that's expected to fill the cracks in Dietz's script. Maybe that's why, when remembered from a distance of time, Lonely Planet resembles a rather shoddy mosaic of disparate shards and panels glued together. This production, directed by New Theatre Company's Bruce Coleman, has its pleasures, thanks especially to New Day co-founder Richard Frederick as Carl. On opening night, both Frederick and David Benn as Jody flubbed a couple of lines during the first act. They sailed through several comic high points in the second, though; Frederick is a soft-voiced tornado of deceit and racing, competing thoughts, all of which he feels compelled to expound upon for your edification. Frederick brings method to Carl's flustery madness; if only the playwright had similarly mastered his chaotic script.