Empty Chairs

Disappearing humans

It's called the Greenland problem, explains Jody, the man always behind the counter at Jody's Maps. In order to present a usable picture of the world, cartographers have had to accept a certain amount of distortion. Thus Greenland appears to be the size of Africa on many maps when it's really much tinier —and thus Lonely Planet, Steven Dietz's play about the distortions we accept to make life livable.

For Jody (Vince Campbell), it's burgeoning agoraphobia; for his best friend, Carl (Paul A. Castellano), it's a tangle of poorly plotted lies about his own life. For both, it's a way to cope with the monster looming outside of Jody's shop: everyone they know is dying of AIDS, and every day, it hits closer. Carl keeps stacking empty chairs in Jody's shop, one for each friend who's gone. At first, they're easy to avoid; all too quickly, though, they completely clog the stage.

So symbolism drifts about in continent-sized chunks: Jody takes great pains to explain the artificial nature of maps and the similar ways we construct our own representations of the world. And each empty chair practically has a name tag dangling from it. But it's not just an AIDS play—though it dates from the dark days of Bush the Elder's administration—it's a play about loss, loneliness and legacy. And even though Dietz did everything but supply a Thomas Guide directing us to the ending, it's still poignant: in this production, an empty chair can say a lot.

Campbell and Castellano brew up a bristly chemistry as two men who could have been lovers but aren't and instead temper real, deep feelings for each other with archetypal Odd Couple crankiness. They're each playing two characters at once—their deadpan public selves and, beneath that fa├žade, very frightened men. And this Sharyn Case production similarly tempers a piece on the politics of AIDS—valid if a bit familiar by now—with genuine portrayals of the human effort to cope with death. And of course, no one stops to ask for directions. Instead, Jody and Carl make maps in their heads, charting and re-charting what each of those empty chairs really means.

Lonely Planet at Vanguard Theatre Ensemble, 699-A S. State College Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 526-8007. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m. Through Feb. 17. $15; $2 discount for students and seniors; $5 student rush tickets at curtain time.

 
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