"Lonely Planet," written and directed by Steven Dietz. Produced by A Contemporary Theatre, 1st Ave. West and Roy Street. Tuesdays-Thursdays, through Aug. 1. 285-5110. -------------------------------------------------------------------
"Lonely Planet," the very worthwhile new play by Steven Dietz at A Contemporary Theatre, can be classified as an AIDS drama. It could also be tagged a love story, an existential meditation on human isolation and connection, an absurdist comedy.
Each label would fit, but none alone would convey the scope of this intimate yet expansive work. Its many facets combined make "Lonely Planet" an intriguing venture. And the pitch-perfect performances of Laurence Ballard and Michael Winters, under Dietz's direction, imbue it with fierce compassion.
Dietz, ACT's unofficial writer-in-residence, has been groping toward this kind of fusion for a while. In "Lonely Planet" he's found a credible way to merge his sardonic wit and political concerns, with emotional authenticity and heart.
The planet he (and set designer Scott Weldin) conjure is tidy and minuscule: a modest map store presided over by the hermetic Jody (Winters), and often visited by Carl (Ballard), an exuberant fellow of indeterminate occupation who keeps filling the shop with chairs.
The exact nature of their relationship is not instantly decipherable. Neither is the rationale for stockpiling the chairs, so many that they soon obscure the maps and globes Jody is trying to sell.
For a time, the dialogue stays as elliptical and enigmatic as that in Ionesco's "The Chairs," an absurdist classic which Dietz impishly acknowledges and borrows from.
But "Lonely Planet" does not withhold its secrets indefinitely, nor toss them into the dark abyss that claims Ionesco's characters. Little by little, particulars are revealed - that Jody and Carl are homosexuals, that many of their friends are dying from a thankless disease which can only be AIDS, that Jody has virtually barricaded himself in his store for fear of what lurks outside, and that Carl's furniture deposits are directly linked to his deceased friends.
The play keeps explaining itself, and so do the characters, who - when they aren't bantering with each other - are confiding their observations and confusions to us. And yet for every revelation, Dietz plants another riddle, And for every soliloquy freighted with metaphorical meaning, there's an emotional punch to sock it all home.
Sometimes it's just a haunting few bars of Joe Cocker howling that Bob Dylan anthem, "I Shall Be Released." Or an on-the-money epigram: "Lovers are easy, friends are hard." Ultimately, it's the ability of these friends to come through in life's loneliest moments - with a candy bar, a safe haven or just being there when fate hangs on a phone call.
With the wrong production, "Lonely Planet" might appear schematic or pretentious - not to mention far-fetched. But ACT's version is a very right one. Not all playwrights get the best out of their own material; Dietz didn't when he staged his romantic drama, "Trust" at ACT last year.
But Dietz had Ballard and Winters in mind while writing "Lonely Planet," and their harmonic convergence with these roles is total. Ballard pours his native intensity into Carl, and his puckishness, too. Bouncing around in jeans and Doc Martens, relentlessly cheerful and spouting one colorful lie after another, he lets you believe Carl's just an amusing flake - until his abundant humanity and courage sneak up on you.
Winters has the subtler task of playing an inverted man, hiding in the orderliness of his maps and baffled by his (obviously symbolic) dreams. As usual, Winter is so natural, so unmannered you barely spot him acting: you just tag along into those scary, exhilarating places where Jody eventually goes.
There's nothing campy or effeminate about Jody and Carl, and their sexuality is clearly stated but muted. Most other plays addressing the AIDS crisis within the gay community - like Tony Kushner's "Angels in America" - include flamboyant characters who flaunt their "queerness" proudly, defiantly.
The absence of that in-your-face sexual dimension may make "Lonely Planet" more accessible to straight audiences; it's already been produced in Chicago and Minneapolis regional theaters, and is slated for San Jose soon.
But that doesn't mean the play cops out: Carl's blistering speech about the differences in how gay and straight AIDS victims are viewed is a blunt strike against homophobia.
In any case, gay men are not all alike, and Jody and Carl have enough palpable life to give them credibility. Moreover, they have a credible relationship - one that shifts, chafes, and deepens before our eyes, as we contemplate the mysterious alchemy of friendship on a small and lonely planet.