While Angels In America makes an epic revival at The National, a lesser known play of the same era receives its U.K. Premiere, directed by Ian Brown, at the Tabard theatre. The two-hander, Lonely Planet by Steven Dietz, tackles similar themes in a far more subtle and refined way.
Set in the oldest street of an undisclosed American city, Jody’s map store plays host to its owner and his friend Carl; who freely admits he continually lies. It’s the late eighties and America is gripped in the AIDS crisis, Carl keeps filling Jody’s shop with chairs and it becomes clear that these are the chairs of their deceased community. Jody hasn’t ventured outside of the store for months and is ignoring and forgetting the outside world, and so, it falls to Carl to support his friend. We discover, slowly through mysterious phone calls and far-fetched stories that Carl is collecting more than chairs, he’s collecting the lives of those he has lost, so that they won’t be forgotten.
In the role of Carl, Aaron Vodovoz is bursting with enthusiasm. As he tells ever increasingly ludicrous stories his eyes widen in delight. “I’m happy, take a picture” he repeats as he describes the valuable piece of art he will restore or the story he’ll publish in the tabloids.
Alexander McMorran, as Jody, is more worldy-wise, playing it calm and patient, in stark contrast to Carl, but the tables turn and we see him quiver with anxiety as he patiently awaits his test results, the fear written all over his face. McMorran and Vodovoz both turn in strong performances which help make Lonely Planet a far more relatable piece of theatre.
A great deal of attention has been paid to the set with rolled up maps piled high and trinkets squeezed in to every available space, the clutter bringing to life the mess of the outside world. The costumes are typical of the era, and with Vodovoz sporting a perm and McMorran a ponytail, Nik Corall has excelled in getting the look just right.
With more than a nod to Ionesco’s The Chairs, it’s a testament to Dietz’s writing that so much can be conveyed through pure performance, the word AIDS is never uttered and only a couple of references are made to the characters sexualities, yet it’s perfectly clear where we are and the situation we find ourselves in.
Though, just like the Mercator Map in Jody’s store, what we believe to be true and what we are familiar with isn’t always right. Plays like Angels in America and My Night with Reg may have the bigger reputation, but this production of Lonely Planet has the bigger heart and greater storytelling power.