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Death Is in the Details

Actors Theatre tries to raise our AIDS awareness -- a decade too late

Though it took Actors Theatre a few months to regroup after leaving its longtime home on South Boulevard, the now traveling troupe has finally opened its new season in borrowed space at Unhinged Productions. Unfortunately, the company's sluggish production of Steven Dietz's very dated Lonely Planet doesn't offer much to celebrate. The 1993 script about paralyzing fear and loneliness in the face of the AIDS crisis is heavy-handed in both its delivery and its message.

Jody (George Brock) runs "a small map store on the oldest street in an American city." And lately he's become so terrified of the sickness and death going on outside his establishment's door that he's turned agoraphobic, refusing to step into the sunlight for any reason, not even to get his own AIDS test. He quietly shuffles about his store wearing slept-in clothes, gold-rimmed spectacles and a day-old beard on his bony chin. Every once in a while, he checks to make sure the lock is turned and the "closed" sign is up. Only his strange friend Carl (Kent Johnson) is allowed to enter Jody's lonely world of fear.

A self-proclaimed liar, Carl is odd in a number of ways. One minute he says he's a glass installer; the next, he waters corporate plants for a living. Incessantly happy, he shows up at all hours of the day, even breaking the glass to get in when Jody refuses to answer the door. But the most peculiar thing about Carl is that whenever he arrives, he comes bearing chairs. Lots and lots of chairs. Of every shape and size. Wicker, wood and stainless-steel. What began as an homage to Ionesco's 1951 absurdity The Chairs devolves into an overwrought metaphor: It turns out that each chair belongs to someone who has died of AIDS.

Eventually a mountain of furniture rises from the stage, the chairs teetering precariously on top of one another. This playwright wants us to know that AIDS is an enormous problem, affecting countless individuals whose whole lives resonate in the piles of wicker rockers, aluminum kitchen seats and leather-bound stools. No matter how much our everyman Jody tries, he can't hide from the crisis. It will come to him whether he wants it or not.

Graphic as the image is, this lesson must have seemed obvious even in 1993. But Dietz goes on with his didactic message, preaching about the disparity in the treatment of gay men with AIDS as opposed to children or straight people with the disease. In 2002, such a lecture seems dated to the point of being inaccurate, given the changing demographics of HIV rates in this country.

Certainly, Dietz's thin script is not without some emotionally honest moments. Especially effective is the metaphor of Jody's maps. Spread across every wall, the maps are Jody's way of charting his life. Each distorts the world for a different purpose -- one makes Greenland as big as South America; another makes the world look like a Dalí painting -- but each helps us navigate potential problems. And Jody is very much aware of potential problems. The maps help him feel grounded and tell him where he is in an unstable and unpredictable world.

Brock finds in Jody a fine balance between paralyzing terror and morbid caution, making Jody's unwillingness to go outside seem more an act of intellect than of neurosis. There is something tender in the way he pushes at the bridge of his glasses as he slips past a confrontation with Carl over his inevitable AIDS test.

Less successful is Johnson's Carl. He's too cool and calculated to be the affable eccentric who helps Jody find his way back to the world. At one point Carl argues that irony is "the penicillin of modern culture." But Johnson has taken this ironic piece of Carl's personality too much to heart. He's distant from the rueful Jody and has little of the wacky energy that might inspire him to tell tall tales or haul cartloads of chairs over to a map store in order to motivate a friend.

Long, careful pauses result from the fact that both characters come off as withdrawn and a little tart. They weigh on the production's energy, even robbing it of its vaguely heartwarming, sentimental ending. In fact, there is an almost apathetic bitterness in the final scene that is clearly not intended, given Dietz's moments of soap-boxing about our culture's failure to deal adequately with AIDS.

Furthermore, Foster Davis's direction is enervated and sloppy. Each blackout is filled with stagehands running into walls and each other as they carry on armloads of chairs. One recent evening, Davis himself sauntered out on stage during intermission and carried on a friendly, unrelated conversation as his stagehands stumbled about. They behaved as though it were a rehearsal rather than a performance. And the final image of the play, in which a picture of the world is lit up to exemplify the painful loneliness of an entire planet, is marred by the fact that the poster has been mounted carelessly on its back board leaving big creases running through it. These sorts of details can undermine even a solid production. They simply sink an already tenuous one.

 
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