Lonely Planet

InterAct Theatre Company. Arts Bank, Broad and South Sts., through Feb. 11, 893-1145.

Seconds into Steven Dietz's Lonely Planet you realize that there are not one but two metaphors at work.

The first is maps. Jody (played by City Paper's Managing Editor David Warner) is the owner of a map store in a less-traveled section of the city. A few minutes into the play, in a speech delivered directly to the audience, he describes "the Greenland Problem'': the inability of two-dimensional maps to represent the three dimensions of the globe without distortion. Just as the Mercator projection map makes Greenland, which is smaller than Mexico, look larger than Africa, "we too,

The second metaphor is chairs. A few minutes into the play Carl (Frank X), an art restorer (or a window installer in an auto body shop, or a fingerprint specialist with the homicide squad, or, more likely, none of the above) comes into Jody's shop with a single chair, and a pack of lies about where it comes from. By the second scene, there's a seven-foot stack of mismatched chairs on stage that keeps climbing as the play proceeds.

I'm not giving anything away if I tell you what the audience learns after only a few minutes: that each chair comes from the apartment of a friend who has died of AIDS. Illness and death are the blind spots, the things in the periphery of Jody and Carl's lives that they distort.

What keeps these metaphors from being overwrought is the characters', and the playwright's, ironic self-consciousness of metaphor. Lest we miss the allusion, Jody, at the beginning of the second act, is reading Ionesco's The Chairs and explaining the metaphors of that play to Carl; and Carl, who "refuses to be robbed of his irony," acknowledges that, unlike Ionesco, life does not involve jumping out windows, and doesn't climax in absurdity and meaninglessness.

Nor does Lonely Planet. Instead, the play is about Jody and Carl. They barely know each other. Carl tells stories. Jody tells Carl about his dreams. They play every game except the game of telling the truth. The chairs stack up. And Jody doesn't (won't, can't) leave the store. (When he finally does, in the middle of Act II, the phrase "I have to be tested" resonates with a double meaning.)

Warner is wonderfully centered as Jody -- in his body, in his shop, and in his maps, to which he clings as fixed objects, as "surrogates of space." But when Jody lets Carl and the audience see his fears, Warner lets us see the Greenland-like distortions, and the sheer terror, at the center of Jody's supposed fixity. Warner's long moment of silence as he listens to needed and dreaded news on the telephone is riveting.

Frank X is marvelous with Carl's virtuosic lies, his manic shifts of subject and identity. Perhaps he's too good at it, turning each lie into a crafted stage performance. But we soon learn that that's not X's slickness but Carl's, and that he too has his Greenland problem, his hidden terror, and his empty chair.

Seth Rozin's simple, honest and brutally unsentimental production for InterAct is not so much about the two individual characters as it is about their relationship, about the ability of two people who are neither confidantes nor lovers nor perhaps even really friends to help each other see, to map out their lives in the face of death.

In this, Lonely Planet can be thought of as a second-generation AIDS play. It doesn't talk about the disease or its social effects; it doesn't cry out for political action or decry public apathy. But when, toward the end of the play, Jody tells the story of a friend who realizes that "falling in love saved my life," we understand the mystery of friendship, and we are included in the characters', and the playwright's, life-giving embrace.

-- Cary M. Mazer