New Repertory Theatre continues its compelling Statements of Survival series with a 25th anniversary production of Steven Dietz’s 1993 AIDS drama Lonely Planet, which will run through March 4 in New Rep’s intimate black box theater.
Co-produced by the Boston Center for American Performance and beautifully directed by New Rep artistic director Jim Petosa, Lonely Planet exudes pleasant warmth in spite of the severity of its subject matter and remains satisfying despite Dietz’s compulsion to overstuff his scenes with both words and symbolism.
The play is set on the oldest street of an unnamed American city at Jody’s Maps, a small map shop run by a not quite middle-aged gay man named Jody (an exquisite Michael Kaye). His eccentrically manic friend, Carl (played by a supremely affecting Tim Spears), has been slowly filling Jody’s shop with chairs. (Ionesco, anyone?) Despite their friendship, they seem not to know an awful lot about each other and Carl—whom Jody describes as the little brother he never wanted—is entirely unforthcoming about the particulars of his life. Every time Jody asks him what he does for a living, the answer changes.
While it doesn’t ring completely true that such good friends would know so little about each other, such concerns are mitigated by the effortless chemistry of Kaye and Spears, who are each giving performances of tremendous heart.
Although the great mystery of the play’s early scenes surrounds Carl—where he’s going all day and why he’s filling Jody’s shop with chairs—Jody winds up being the more confounding question mark.
It turns out that Carl has been working as a volunteer, cleaning out the apartments of those taken by AIDS. There’s something about their chairs, though, that he just can’t leave on the side of the road, and so they fill Jody’s shop like ghosts. (This is echoed in Jeffery Petersen’s fine set design.)
At the center of Lonely Planet are two terrified men who are each showing their fear and sadness in two very different ways. With Carl at one extreme, Jody is stuck wilting at the other; he hasn’t left his shop in a while, unable to confront a city ravaged by disease. The question, then, not only becomes if Carl can convince Jody to leave his shop but whether Jody himself might also be sick.
The enormity of disease and death is irrefutably palpable throughout Petosa’s production, which does a masterful job of balancing the play’s occasionally oppressive tension and its lighter comedic moments, of which there are many. The production looks great, too, illuminated by Matthew Guminski’s beautiful lighting design.
There are other plays that tackle similar subject matter with far more heft, though Lonely Planet is at the very least admirable for its compulsive watchability. Flaws aside, it is the two performances at the center of this deeply felt production that shine brightest.
LONELY PLANET. THROUGH 3.4 AT NEW REPERTORY THEATRE, 321 ARSENAL ST., WATERTOWN. NEWREP.ORG
Theater critic for TheaterMania & WBUR’s TheArtery | Theater Editor for DigBoston | film and music critic for EDGE Media | Boston Theater Critics Association.