Steven Dietz has a mouthful of an accolade. After Shakespeare, he is the joint-eighth most performed playwright in America. Not that you’d know it. The overwhelming majority of his plays make regional debuts in the US and become middle-brow staples. One play in particular – Lonely Planet – made waves in 1993, but never crossed the waves to make it to the UK. Until now.
Lonely Planet charts the friendship and foibles of Jody and Carl, two gay men in an unnamed American city. Jody owns a cluttered, largely unvisited map shop. Carl, a floater and a liar – but one who Jody has warmed to – visits most days. The show opens with the discovery of a chair, plonked in the centre of the shop. As the story and the friendship develops, so does the number of chairs – for a heart-breaking reason. Despite their bickering, Carl helps Jody overcome his fears of the outside world, enabling him to visit the doctor and take a week off work. Sadly, however, Carl can’t fix everything, and ultimately has to bring his own chair centre stage. Jody is forced to face cold, hard (blue leather) facts.
The play is admirably written, neatly constructed and full of sweet ideas and clever hooks. It is distinctive in tone, with non-sequitur, non-sensical and unexplained tangents drawing from Ionesco (whose The Chairs is heavily referenced) and Albee, who injected similar fatalistic dystopic normality into twentieth century America.
However, the writing is thick with metaphor. It feels tricky in the actors’ mouths and effortful from the writer’s pen, becoming less ‘rich tapestry’ and more ‘tie-dye patchwork’ in its visual imagery. Dietz clearly has an eye (and the heart) for poignancy, but to cobble together metaphors and meaning for chairs, maps, dreams, jobs etc. is an act of self-sabotage. The gut punch of a central device – empty chairs for and of those we’ve lost – just isn’t given the space it needs to breathe.
The programme notes the play was written within the twelve months of both Angels in America and My Night with Reg. Neither lead to favourable comparisons. Lonely Planet lacks the acerbic wit of the latter and the inexplicable grandeur of the former. Whilst Lonely Planet might help you understand your place on the map, Angels in America explodes an entire cosmos within – and the entire cosmos of – your mind.
Instead, Dietz gives us an affable, enjoyable but “quirky” piece that dare not even speak its subject. AIDS. HIV. The ‘plague’ and the ‘disease’ and the ‘community’ are much referenced – but is there not power in the word? And in its usage, defamation and reclamation? One can imagine how this play would have moved, and the word would have shaken, the citizens of Skokie, Illinois in 1993 but the year is 2017, the city is London and both this and we are overdue.
In Lonely Planet Dietz has constructed a poetic polemic that expounds on friendship, community, inertia, depression, stewardship – but with no great substance and to no great effect. The play is really quite good – but in its writing, at least, it could be so much more than this.
Alexander McMorran and Aaron Vodovoz as Jody and Carl respectively give strong and believable performances – commendable given how unrealistic and unlikeable their characters are. Both also maintain strong American accents and fluid physicality. McMorran’s Jody is resolute, muted and thoroughly depressed, meaning the lightness of his sword-fighting and the flashes of his anger come as striking counterpoints. Vodovoz creates a zany, enthusiastic compulsive liar that somehow doesn’t grate – and might even manage to be endearing.
Ian Brown, former Artistic Director of the Traverse and West Yorkshire Playhouse, lends a tender and well-measured hand to a play that will continue to feel increasingly outdated. His characters find meaning and reality, despite their in-built irregularity, however the overall effect fails to pack the emotional punch desired or required. We want more pain. More catharsis.
Nik Corrall’s set is convincing and well-conceived, excepting the dubious painted-on windows in the shop door. Costumes evoke a strong sense of historicity just through how cringeworthy they are. Music is used infrequently, and the soundscape is limited to generic passer-by traffic and hubbub. Will Scarnell’s lighting is pleasant but could push more to create variation in tone and time, especially between scenes of monologue and duologue, action and reflection.
Lonely Planet is well-intentioned, well-crafted and well performed, it just feels to be from a land far, far away. The best plays, we know, endure, even when exploring specific (sub)cultures – Boys in the Band can be added to those listed above. This UK premiere has been a long time coming and its first revival should be too. This planet is just too full of vibrancy and vigour for it to come any time soon.