By Jenn McKee
One of the two characters in Steven Dietz’s “Lonely Planet,” now playing at Breathe Art Theatre Project, offers this snarky comment while discussing the impossibility of truly knowing another person: “It’s like people who buy jackets with fringe on them. They’re a mystery.”
And indeed, an innate desire to discover exactly who the play’s two elusive characters are, and the basis for their relationship, initially fuels the talky play. But because the script flirts with sanctimoniousness, and often trades in self-conscious poeticism, the play feels as though it always keeps its audience at arm’s length.
Focusing on the reclusive owner of a map store named Jody (Joel Mitchell), and Carl (Stephen Blackwell), a mysterious man who’s a fixture in the store, “Planet” charts the unusual nature and course of their friendship, which takes place at the height of the AIDS epidemic.
Dietz’s dialogue is anything but naturalistic. Instead, it takes stylized flights of fancy, so that dreams (Jody’s) and highly convoluted lies (Carl’s) get much of the textual spotlight. Mitchell and Blackwell handle this unconventional dialogue exceedingly well, to their credit. There’s no trace of the cliche stereotypes we see all too often when gay characters are depicted on stage, and the two actors are wholly believable as two men terrified by the ever-mounting death toll in their community.
Aaron T. Moore, meanwhile, directs the show with great sensitivity, never letting it feel static – a considerable feat given the tangents the characters often pursue. (Moore and his actors do such good work, in fact, that despite my annoyance about script issues, I nonetheless stayed “plugged in” throughout the show.)
But Dietz’s characters, and the store, ultimately feel more contrived than real. Jody owns a map store so he can articulate deep thoughts about perspective vs. accuracy, and how we try to impose order on the very things that thwart it. Plus, given his reluctance to leave the store, his passion for illustrations of the wider world and distant lands is ironic. (See? Get it?)
These were the kind of things I was thinking about when I should have been focused on why Carl keeps bringing random chairs to Jody’s store. The reason ends up being self-consciously “meaningful,” as is the play’s predictable ending. Yes, “Planet”‘s core is Jody and Carl’s friendship; but unfortunately, that feels forced, too, forged in the interest of giving Dietz a soapbox.
In fairness, in 1993, when the play first premiered, there was at least a higher tolerance, if not an outright need, for grandstanding about the AIDS epidemic. Carl angrily discusses, in one tense scene, how lots of people seemed to view AIDS deaths not as a tragedy, but as due punishment for wrongful acts. And while this is both disgusting and true, the fact is that at this point, these messages are being preached to an already-aware choir. Yes, some in our society still hold fast to such beliefs – but I’m pretty sure those folks won’t be buying a ticket to “Lonely Planet” anyway.
Breathe Art Theatre Project at The Furniture Factory, 4126 Third St, Detroit. Friday-Sunday through Oct. 11. (Then Oct. 16-17 at Mackenzie Hall, 3277 Sandwich St., Windsor.) $20. 248-982-4121. http://www.breathearttheatre.com