Topographic Oceans 

ETC's Lonely Planet takes an absurdist look at AIDS.

Of all the dramatic literature surrounding the AIDS epidemic, Stephen Dietz's Lonely Planet stands alone. The mid-'80s saw rampant productions of shows like As Is and The Normal Heart. The former combined staggering facts and figures with intense melodrama. The latter skipped out on the numbers game and cut straight to the weeping. The fantastical pageantry of Tony Kushner's Angels in America mythologized the disease in the early '90s. Around the same time the performance-art phenomenon trickled down from our coastal cosmopoli resulting in countless, largely uncatalogued AIDS-related microproductions -- a tidal wave of one-man shows ranging from intimate self-portraits to incomprehensible rants littered with gushy New Age mumbo jumbo. And then the performer disappeared from the scene. AIDS art became almost entirely about absence. By the mid-'90s you couldn't go to an art gallery without seeing some empty article of clothing hanging on the wall. Empty shirts blew about on clotheslines. Empty shoes filled a corner. People began celebrating a "day without art" to remind themselves of how many masterpieces would never be painted because of this devastating epidemic's impact on the art community.

Lonely Planet is both an absurdist bow to the Romanian playwright Eugene Ionesco and a fractured, knowing essay on the era when AIDS-related art spread like the epidemic itself. Its uniqueness stems from the fact that it is less a play about dealing with a particular disease than a plan for maintaining some kind of useful perspective in the midst of information overload.

The Emerald Theatre Company's competent production is at times stilted and monotonous, but the sincerity and commitment of actors Hal Harmon and Den-Nickolas Smith smooth over many of the show's rougher spots. In fact, it's too bad Dietz did not trust his own script as much as Harmon and Smith do. Rather than allowing his work to stand on its own, he delivers a thinly disguised lecture to the audience explaining that Lonely Planet finds its origins in Ionesco's devastating comedy The Chairs. This self-important filler, entirely extraneous to the action, bogs down an otherwise interesting piece. Those in the know would have gotten the reference on their own and those not in the know don't need the modern-lit class in order to participate.

The play's action takes place inside of Jody's Maps, a tiny store located on what the author describes as "the oldest street in a large American city." Jody (Harmon) has, for reasons which are not immediately clear, stopped going outside and is gradually shutting himself off from the world. He opens up his shop each morning, but he never changes the sign that reads, "Sorry, we're closed." His only human contact comes in the form of Carl (Smith), a blabbermouthed cipher who has constructed an honest identity out of an assortment of wild exaggerations and out-and-out lies. Over time Carl fills Jody's little store with chairs he claims to have either found on the street or bought at auction. The chairs, it turns out, all come from the homes of friends who have succumbed to an unnamed disease.

The show's most engaging moment comes in the form of Jody's meditation on the centuries-old Mercator projection map, the staple of high school geography classes and a huge breakthrough for mariners. It flattened our globe in such a way that courses could be charted in a straight line. In order to do this, however, the size of certain land masses -- Greenland most notably -- had to be distorted. In short, the map told some extremely useful lies. Harmon's simple explanation of the map's value as well as its incongruities with reality is a revelation.

Smith's Carl is not quite so effective, but the role is more difficult and not nearly as well-written. Carl's rants on boredom and his loss of irony ("The penicillin of modern thought") can list to the whiney side, and Smith opens the show with an "over that" manifesto that is way over the top. Unlike Beckett's absurd tramps, there isn't quite enough slapstick in Carl's actions to counter such soul-deadening ennui, but in spite of all this, Smith gets the job done well enough.

The performers in Lonely Planet are called upon to play it straight while engaging in buffoonery of cartoonish proportions. Neither Smith nor Harmon (ETC's founding members) have all the tools to really make this show click along at its proper pace. The absence of a directing credit in the program is perhaps the most obvious explanation for the show's one-note-ness. Still, after five years of making theater on a shoestring, the team of Harmon and Smith has proved yet again where there's a will there's a way.

Lonely Planet is one of the few AIDS-centered plays that won't be relegated to the dustbin of "period pieces" on that wonderful day when a cure is finally found. As long as death remains our greatest nemesis and fear its greatest ally, it will remain relevant. What ETC's production of this unusual script lacks in variety and finesse it more than makes up for in enthusiasm and understanding.

Through November 17th at TheatreWorks.

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