May 24, 2012 | by Patrick Folliard
Maps and memories

‘Lonely Planet’
Through June 17
MetroStage
1201 N. Royal St., Alexandria
$45-$50 (military and student discounts available)
703-548-9044

 

Michael Russotto, left, and Eric Sutton in ‘Lonely Planet’ by playwright Steven Dietz. (Photo by Christopher Banks; courtesy MetroStage)

Tucked away inside his tidy map shop, Jody does his best to keep the uncertainties of the turbulent outside world at bay. But his is an unwinnable strategy. Sooner or later, he must confront what terrifies him most.

In Steven Dietz’s 1994 play “Lonely Planet” — currently playing at MetroStage in Alexandria — the playwright describes a plague that’s affecting men in an American city, and though he doesn’t refer to the disease by name, it’s never for a moment in doubt that the culprit is AIDS. Inspired by maps and Ionesco’s absurdist play “The Chairs,” Dietz explores death and friendship during the most harrowing time of the crisis.

The action is restricted to one space: a small, carefully appointed shop. Here, gay middle-aged Jody (Michael Russotto) has constructed an orderly sanctuary where he deals exclusively with the exactness of latitude and longitude, a place where sales are occasionally referred to, but customers are never seen. We do, however, see Carl (Eric Sutton), a gay younger friend who frequently visits bearing irony and chairs (ladder back, rocker, Windsor) which he persuades Jody to store for him because his apartment is too small. After spinning a tale or two and delivering a pep talk on getting out and about, Carl dashes off to one of his invented jobs (tabloid reporter, art conservator, auto glazier) only to return minutes later with more chairs and chatter.

Soon we learn that Carl’s ever-increasing hoard of chairs once belonged to his and Jody’s friends who have died in the frighteningly lethal epidemic. Carl keeps one chair belonging to each victim as a remembrance. It’s also revealed that Carl’s true employment involves clearing out the homes of these recently deceased friends. And those made-up jobs? They also belonged to the dearly departed.

After intermission, the stage is lit to reveal even more chairs (straw bottomed, barber, Breuer). The image gets a chuckle from the audience, but they’re a terrifying reminder to Jody of death, disease and the uncertainty of his HIV status (Jody has yet to be tested). His fear is palpable. It’s up to Carl to coax Jody to venture beyond the store.

Set designer Jane Fink has imagined a shop filled with globes and scrolled maps. Its heavy dark furniture and transom door feel entirely resistant to time. The stage is backed by a wall of collaged maps. At the top of a simple proscenium is the earth as photographed from outer space. By the show’s end, dozens of chairs are piled on the stage, creating a tall and odd monument. Sounds questionable, but it proves exceedingly poignant.

As Jody and Carl, Russotto and Sutton, respectively (both actors are gay), are believable as longtime, caring friends and each do their best to elevate sometimes plodding monologues. Russotto’s performance is deceptive — it’s quiet but packs an emotional wallop. And Sutton is delightful as the vexing, leather vest-wearing Carl whose sarcasm can belie his good heartedness.

Despite the sad subject matter, much of “Lonely Planet” is playful and fun. And while the allegorical and symbolic aspects of the show can get a little heavy handed, skilled director John Vreeke (also gay) guides the actors in creating some glowing, touching moments. And Vreeke (with the help of lighting designer Jessica Lee Winfield) stages the unexpected and very memorable ending just right.

At a recent performance, the audience was comprised mostly of midshipmen from the Naval Academy’s drama group, the Masqueraders. It struck others present that these young men and women were toddlers when the play was penned almost 20 years ago.  Through “Lonely Planet,” they traveled to a time when testing positive was a death sentence, but they were also shown a glimpse of the gay community at its very best and the enduring value of friendship.

 

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