Off-Broadway Review: “Lonely Planet” at the Keen Company at the Clurman at Theatre Row

Off-Broadway Review: “Lonely Planet” at the Keen Company at the Clurman at Theatre Row (Through Saturday November 18, 2017)
By Steven Dietz
Directed by Jonathan Silverstein
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

“And this is the thing: they will train you, they will teach you to hit, they will teach you to move – but they never tell you about the fear. Nothing the people in your Corner can tell you will prepare you for the fear.” – Jody to Carl

Despite the outstanding performances of Arnie Burton and Matt McGrath, the revival of Steven Dietz’s “Lonely Planet,” currently running at the Keen Company at the Clurman at Theatre Row, fails to deliver on the promise inherent in its title to address the overwhelmingly important issue of loneliness and the devastation it leaves in its wake. That failure appears to be in the script itself and in choices made by the director Jonathan Silverstein.

“Lonely Planet” takes place in the 1990s in “a small map store on the oldest street in an American city.” Jody (played with the inextinguishable angst of an entire generation by Arnie Burton) owns the shop and, because of his fear of testing HIV-positive, has remained holed up in his shop for weeks – or perhaps longer visited only by his friend Carl (played with a quirky nonchalance that overlays a deep level of loneliness by Matt McGrath) who visits quite often and sometimes brings soup or coffee or other forms of sustenance. It becomes Carl’s mission to get Jody out of the shop, back on the streets, and to get tested. This complements his mission to convince Jody to attend the funerals and memorial services of their mutual friends who – daily it seems – have died from the complications of the AIDS virus.

Although the characters are mostly well developed and their significant conflicts easily identifiable, the plot is too predictable to support a two-act play – and that is unfortunate. The overall themes of finding one’s way in a time of divisiveness, oppression, and loneliness are relevant in the current socio-political environment and require thoughtful discourse and action. Conventions that worked twenty-five years ago do not always work in the present. What once seemed avant-garde in theatre appears conventional currently. One too easily identifies the reason Carl clutters Jody’s shop with chairs and the provenance of the stories from all the “jobs” Carl purports to have.

There are too many tropes in the script for any one of them to have the impact it should and to allow the bones of the play an opportunity to be properly enfleshed by the competent cast. Mr. Dietz overlays the important discussion about the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis (only referred to as “this disease in the script) with images of maps and chairs (think Ionesco) and repetitive dream-sharing and endless games. In his attempt to navigate through the maze of extended metaphors, director Silverstein never allows the characters to fully gel or to achieve a level of believability and authenticity. Jody and Carl talk “at” one another or “over” one another without being able to convince the audience they care about one another amidst their irrepressible pain of loss and loneliness.

It is good to see Mr. Burton and Mr. McGrath on the stage battling their characters’ formidable demons and the demons lurking outwith the shop. One wishes they had a more compelling play to exercise their craft.