The setting of Lonely Planet is a “map store on the oldest street in an American city.” I assume the playwright, Stephen Dietz, wrote that into the program to let us know that what we are about to witness could have happened almost anywhere in America. There are several maps mounted on the walls of the small shop, and one of them is the planet earth itself, which will later give substance to the play’s title. As the shop opens for business for the day, Jody (beautifully played by Arnie Burton), the shop keeper, will prepare for the day as well, and he won’t get many of his morning chores done before the door opens and in bursts his best buddy Carl (Matt McGrath). I began to cozy up to the thought that I was in for a sitcom in which everyone is funny. Lonely Planet reminded me of a two-character version of The Big Bang Theory or Will and Grace.
But I was wrong. Dietz had more in mind, and by the end of Act II, two hours later, I’d been absorbed and involved, I’d laughed out loud at the wit sprinkled liberally throughout the several scenes, I’d waited with the same anxiety Burton showed while waiting for an answer to a very important question, and in the end, as I joined the well deserved standing ovation, I admit I was brushing aside a tear or two.
Reference is made only briefly to that mounted map of the earth, surrounded by so little, endlessly circling on its own. We’ve witnessed Jody and Carl annoy, exasperate, and lovingly tend each other through the many crises that their lonely lives deliver to them. Each is a free spirit, unattached: in Jody’s case by choice, in Carl’s because he smothers his partners and exposes his great need for intimacy to the point where he drives them away, always. Eccentric and out of the loop as they both are, they totally won my attention, and eventually my enormous affection. They would be difficult friends to join up with, but well worth the bother as they are real and always there when truly needed.
I’ve watched both of these actors grow over the years. McGrath was just a kid when I was working at Circle Rep in the 1980s, but he showed enormous promise; and in this play, he achieves a marvelous balance between his almost adolescent hysteria and the painful release of very private feelings as he is forced to deal with some very demanding crises. When I was onstage myself, I worked with a very young Arnie Burton in Countess Mitzi at the Pearl Theatre, and there was no mistaking the ways in which he had already learned how to make much of little. He was playing a bit part as the waiter in a restaurant, and one can spot talent so often even when the playwright hasn’t given much to an actor. Burton was positively ingenious in the long running stage version of The 39 Steps, and he proved equally adroit in the Encores! production of The New Yorkers. Experience added to innate talent has developed for us an actor of enormous range, and I hope we see a lot more of him in the future. I’d call him our very own Mark Rylance, though he’s not a copy of anyone. He is a true original.
Jonathan Silverstein has staged Lonely Planet with a firm hand and has not allowed any sentimentality or silliness to enter. The two-hander is played adroitly by these fine actors, who play off each other in the manner of an established team, which is even more remarkable in that I don’t believe they have ever worked together before. Anshuman Bhatia has designed the neat little map shop with an eye to contrasting the weirdly original happenings that are acted out within its space. I urge you to see this play which brightens the still young season off-Broadway.
Running Time: Two hours and 10 minutes with no intermission.