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Maps of the Human Heart

Lonely Planet
Earthlings: Greg Hoffman and John Hogan explore friendship, loss and cartography in "Lonely Planet."

Photo by Lois Tema

Stephen Dietz's acclaimed 'Lonely Planet' gets an S.F. premiere

By Zack Stentz

Maps are wonderful things. Jody certainly thinks so. The protagonist of Stephen Dietz's acclaimed play Lonely Planet runs a map store, and the two-dimensional representations of geography that surround him and define his existence allow him a measure of control over the outside world he fears, a world where his friends are steadily falling to the AIDS epidemic.

Jody's best friend, Carl, deals with the ongoing crisis in his own inimitable way, by spinning outrageous lies about himself and--in a nice hat tip to Ionesco's absurdist classic The Chairs--obsessively collecting chairs. How the two men use their eccentricities as shields against the terrible reality of the outside world and find strength in their friendship forms the heart and backbone of Lonely Planet, which despite having been written in 1993 is only having its San Francisco premiere now as the New Conservatory Theatre stages the two-man play.

"You got me," replies director Arturo Catricala, when asked to account for the play's belated S.F. appearance. (Lonely Planet already has been staged in Berkeley, Marin and San Jose.) "The theater is funny that way, but I'm not complaining. It's very rare as a director that you get to direct such a poetic, lyrical play that's so truthful and humane."

One of the greatest pleasures in watching the inventively written Lonely Planet is seeing the play's metaphors do double and even triple duty in the author's able hands. At one point, the maps of the world that festoon the stage form an ironic counterpoint to Jody's agoraphobia, while in another scene, the absurd distortions of the famous Mercator projection map (in which little Greenland becomes grotesquely swollen, a vaster territory than all of Africa) stand in for our imperfect perceptions of the world. And the chairs Carl obsessively collects keep piling up in Jody's cramped map shop, slowly turning from an absurdist nuisance to a grim reminder of the ever-climbing death toll from the AIDS epidemic.

In its sense of unstoppable, encroaching doom, the play is very evocative of a certain period of the AIDS crisis; let's say 1987­1995. But with new treatments coming and a nascent sense of cautious optimism beginning to take hold in affected communities, is the tone of Lonely Planet as relevant to 1997 audiences? "It's hard to say," Catricala replies. "For some people it'll be just as current, and for others the tone will be more that of reminiscence. One effect of the progress that's been made in the fight against AIDS is that the theme of friendship between the two men will ring out more clearly."

At least it won't be difficult to make sure the two leads--John Hogan as Carl and Greg Hoffman as Jody--convincingly play the friendship between the men. "John and Greg have worked with each other before and are friends in real life," Catricala explains.

A trickier task will be to hit the right emotional notes in a script that continually veers between humorous wordplay, physical comedy and stark tragedy. "The style of the play is somewhere between realism and Theater of the Absurd [a la Ionesco]," Catricala says. "And finding the balance between those two states will totally make or break the production."

Lonely Planet plays at the New Conservatory Theatre through May 17 with 8pm shows Wednesdays through Saturdays; and 2pm shows Sunday, April 13 and May 4. Tickets: 415/861-8972.

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From the April 1997 issue of the Metropolitan

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