By: Jerry Pilato
A blog review: From a fan’s perspective.
San Diego, CA (The Hollywood Times) 8/23/19 –
Community Theatre is alive and well in San Diego… I prefer to call it Theatre In The Community. From here on out it will discussed as that. After having taking a hiatus from my theatre blog with the Hollywood Times I have decided to concentrate on seven or eight of these smaller theatres in beautiful San Diego County. Over the next few months I will be concentrating on the following venues: Lamplighters Theatre, Pow Pac (Poway Community Theatre) , Coronado Playhouse, Point Loma Playhouse, OBPlayhouse, Patio Playhouse, Pickwick Players, Vanguard as well as The Pool House Project, Onstage Theatre and several others that are not listed as “community theatre”. Being associated with several of these theatres my blog will be of my own opinion as an avid theatre goer, director and producer. I am not here to degrade but more to inform. I may at times gently integrate into the text a personal note. Some of the productions will have closed but keep the titles in mind in case they are staged in your area.
So lets begin! Lonely Planet By Steven Dietz is not about any type of travel—well maps being the exception. Produced by Kristen Fogel with The Poolhouse Project and directed by Levi Kaplan the play was first produced in the early 90’s and is the playwrights take on AIDS. Anyone living during the early 80’s and way into the 90’s will relate to the subject matter which, by the way, is not laid out in front of you as such. It is done in metaphor (maps and chairs) and listening to the words that generate humor, sadness and anger coming from two actors who portray the characters of Carl and Jody spot on. Fearful of stepping outside, Jody who is an introvert owns a map store in a rundown area of town. His fear of the outside world has practically turned him into an agoraphobic, seldom leaving his store. His friend Carl is more outgoing and comes and goes regularly. When Carl enters the shop, which he does continuously, you feel that this is Jody’s only connection to the world outside. Carl “entertains” Jody with his many stories’ ..okay lies…about his various professions, the games he plays and any other bright ideas that pop into his head. The play itself however is built around maps and chairs for meaningful explanations. Jody sells maps his escape to a whole planet and Carl collects chairs from men who died from AIDS; a special chair from each person who passed away. He stays busy so lots of chairs and has nowhere to put them except in Jody’s shop. This is so heartbreaking at times…humorous at times.Jody and Carl are both gay but not lovers and they let us see AIDS through their friendship. So Jody needs Carl and Carl needs Jody. Jody lives for his dreams and Carl is there to listen. Carl needs Jody to listen to his made up stories and play his games be they verbal or physical for him to escape what is happening around him. The batter between these two reminds me of a fast paced David Mamet play. The “mailing tube” sword fight is hilarious and wonderfully executed. In fact the navigation, if you will, of the actors in this play is eye pleasing and not static—exciting. I watched these two actors’ every move and the blocking soon becomes a character in the play. There is nothing more boring than to see actors standing around delivering lines. If you had the chance to see this play you know what I mean. It’s also interesting to note that the acronym AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome ) is never used in this play.
Randy Huft who plays Jody takes hold of the character and delivers a knock out performance that is very believable and true to what I feel the playwright is looking to achieve. His sensitivities, temperament and attitude that he displays goes from professor, to playground mate and to loving pal with total accuracy. He is frightened of leaving his store to go outside to a world he has shut out. The one moment in the play (and there are many great moments that are Jody’s ) was the phone call near the end of the play. Jody is waiting for a call with his blood test results. His nervousness transferred to me and I almost jumped out of my seat when the phone rang. Watching him answer that call and his reaction to it took my breath away. This one moment …was a moment that so many young men had to deal with in the mid 80’s and 90’s and still today, but not with the same “horror” as it was then. I really enjoyed the large slides of the earth and maps always there in the background. There was a classroom atmosphere when Jody was explaining the reason why countries seemed so much larger as you moved away from the equator. He pulls the audience into his “classroom” and I know I learned something new. Randy gives us a feeling of his regret and at the same time wanting so much to be “part of’ but can’t get past the front door.
Sometimes getting under Jody’s skin but in a brotherly way the character of Carl is played with the upmost of care by Adam Cuppy. Cuppy makes his entrances moments of ecstatic enthusiasm and not only controls Jody’s attention but the stage and the audience. With an amazing sense of timing Adam keeps the pacing quick with his impeccable lies and chaotic movements which seem to be so built in to his character that he continuously draws the audience into his web—a pied piper of sorts taking us along for a roller coaster ride; however there are moments when we see in Carl the sadness, the rage, the loss of so many friends to a dreaded disease that everyone thought was only in the gay world. It’s these softer more meaningful moments that deliver a feeling of despair, with at times of no hope; we see this in his expressions and more importantly in his whole being. Hope is what keeps us alive. Hope is what Carl so wants after so much sadness. The characters chaotic shifts from real to unreal were such comic relief ; but at plays end, sitting there with a slight smile on his face with Jody behind him deep in thought the lights fade to black bringing the play to full circle—or does it? Perfect in every way.
Under the skillful eye of director Kaplan who wore several hats in this production placed these two men in a somewhat confined space on a large stage; you could feel the love that was devoted to this project. He captured the affection beautifully between these two characters and kept the movement at a rapid fire pace leaving the audience to feel the pain that was caused by this dreaded disease all the while making sure that the humor kept the story from getting maudlin or boring. Having each actor internalize these characterizations, finding so much sub text for these two actors, Kaplan interjected the movement of the piece with precise intensity where needed and the solemn moments that were justified and again meaningful. The rage, soul- searching and all the humor that could be mustered when dealing with such subject matter— the stigma associated with AIDS was there for the audience to understand what was happening in that time so long ago. A shout out to Avi Kaplan changer of scenes who made the transitions run smoothly. His presence was not missed. The play was Stage Managed by Leviticus Padilla who also designed the lighting (beautifully) and who operated the lighting board and slides for the production.
These two actors playing off one another took a great deal of work. With the rapid fire banter and the quietness of meaningful moments Steven Dietz places us in the lives of two friends…two men who, during that terrible time tried to remain sane with all the death that was happening around them…and us. Do you have a favorite chair? A favorite map?
In an interview when asked what message he wants to send to an audience Steven Dietz reply was: “No one message is possible since there is no such thing as a uniform response to a play. I would hope audiences would reflect on their friendships since that is the core of the play”. Steven Dietz was a lover of maps: “…The more my little apartment in Wallingford started to fill with maps I began to imagine a man who would surround himself with the world because he did not want to go out in it.” Dietz, several years ago placed eighth on the list of the Top Ten Most Produced Playwrights in America, equal to Edward Albee and Tennessee Williams.
Often hilarious and sometime somber Lonely Planet is among the other great plays about this subject: As Is, Angles In America, The Normal Heart, A Question Of Mercy, and Rent just to name a few—and there are many. Most are dated by todays standards but are still powerful slices of life told through the eyes of some amazing storytellers in the theatre.