Sometimes the theatre entertains us. Sometimes it makes us think. Sometimes it can even alter our trajectory a bit. On very rare occasions it can do all three. Such is the case with the stellar production of Lonely Planet, a two-hander by Steven Dietz, which opened tonight at the Provincetown Theater. The stars have aligned for this planet and brought with them remarkable performances, gifted direction, a fantastic set and a beautifully written play.
As the journey of Jody and Carl begin, we may think we’ve stumbled into a Beckett play or something as mathematical as Stoppard’s Arcadia. And while the playwright gives us glimpses of these heralded writers through his style, he, of his own merit, creates a world where colorful lies and heroic dreams propel us forward through the darkness and starkness of life; where the truth of the world might be too hard for us to handle without some sort of guide…without imaginative banter and laughter. That’s certainly true for Jody who owns a map shop where the play takes place. We come to learn that his store and all his maps serve as his shield from a world where friends are dying. In fact, it appears he hasn’t left his store in weeks! Referencing his maps he shares with us the “Greenland Problem” which is clearly a metaphor for his own dilemma. The hope for him to overcome his agoraphobia is Carl. Carl comes into the store, multiple times a day, to share stories of his many interesting jobs (all of which appear to be made-up) spouting about boring people everywhere and the necessity to get out into the world with some articulate thought. He also loves to hear about Jody’s dreams which always get around to including him. And maybe most poignant, Carl brings his friend a chair. At first we’re not sure if Carl is a hoarder, a furniture collector or just has a thing for chairs, but within a short while, as the chairs keep coming and cluttering up the shop, we understand that these chairs represent the “empty chair” of someone no longer with us. Even the humored repartee and literal jousting with rolled-up maps isn’t enough to hide the reality…memories fade, friendships can be superficial (including their own) and people die.
This play is ultimately a play about AIDS. But it’s so much more than that I almost feel I do it a disservice by mentioning it as a qualifier. Indeed the playwright has taken special care not to dangle this part of the plot over our heads like a plague – he does not sentimentalize or romanticize the plight of the many who died, he simply asks us to remember them…and that makes the play as poignant today as it was when it was first written. In fact, he never articulates the acronym. It’s a light brush stroke throughout that reveals two gay men who are presented more like “Everyman,” maneuvering their own way amidst devastating loss.
As the play progresses, Jody and Carl (who make a pact “never to fall in love”), posit some of life’s hardest questions with sharp wit and stinging perspectives never losing the heart or longing that define the essence of Jody and ultimately, Carl. There are times throughout the play when the characters speak to the audience as if to glean something from our collective consciousness, or maybe, more accurately, to help us collectively glean their consciousness. Regardless, each time it happens, it seems to make perfect sense and never feels uncomfortable. And to my delight, the playwright weaves in Ionesco’s The Chairs, which had come to mind as another powerful metaphor. By addressing the physical similarity of all the empty chairs he was also able to highlight the contrast against his own story.
Drawing us to its conclusion, an unsettling question is finally answered and we all “sigh” with relief. I actually heard someone in the audience say “Oh…thank goodness!” But as with life, nothing stays the same and very little is predictable. The final heart-wrenching scene of the play is beautifully staged and gives us that sense of loneliness the title suggests. But only for a moment. Ultimately the play leaves us with hope. We can choose to walk out into the world; we can remember what matters most; we can be better friends and spend the time we have appreciating today. As Carl quotes from Ionesco, “We will leave some traces, for we are people and not cities.” This play will leave some traces.
Kudos to the entire creative team for a memorable evening of theatre! Director Francis Kelly moves the play with a purposeful pace (essential for the material) while giving us pause, when necessary, to absorb the rapid fire intellect of these two characters. The staging is clear and direct and allows the focus to remain on the text and on the relationship between Jody and Carl, created by professional actors Joe MacDougall and John Long. Both are members of Actors’ Equity Association and their experience and talent is evident from the moment they hit the stage. John Long as Carl is a supernova of energy and humor, painting his portrait with words that almost seem like a song. He has created a character that is many characters; wearing the lives of others he once knew like a costume, as he tells their stories and collects their chairs. Long certainly has comedic chops but inevitably it is the truthfulness of his vulnerability and sensitivity as Carl that will pull at your heartstrings and bring you to tears. Joe MacDougall is at first as sure and specific as his maps, giving a welcome balance to the frenetic nature of his counterpart. But before long he reveals an underlying layer of fear and emptiness and desperation that is palpable. There is never an artificial moment to this portrayal and MacDougall shines bright. Together this duo is both dynamic and captivating from start to finish. Scene design by Tom Sharp and light design and chair sculpture by Tristan Divincenzo are noteworthy and a perfect support for the play and the players.
If you live in Provincetown…go! If you are visiting Provincetown…go! If you are on Cape Cod or in Boston or New York plan a trip to see this play. This production could easily be on any Off-Broadway stage or any major regional theatre stage right now for double the ticket price. Don’t miss your chance to see theatre at its best. Lonely Planet is playing Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30pm and Sunday at 3pm through June 7th at Provincetown Theater, 238 Bradford Street in Provincetown. Call 508-487-7487 or visit www.provincetowntheater.org