Maps and Legends
Lonely Planet. By Steven Dietz. Directed by Arturo Catricala. Starring Greg Hoffman and John Hogan. Presented by the New Conservatory Theater, 25 Van Ness (at Market), through May 17. Call 861-8972.

Jody, in Steven Dietz's Lonely Planet, owns a map store. In a long and slightly pedantic monologue during Act 1 he explains how the Mercator map projection distorts the size of continents, making Greenland look as large as South America when it's really the size of Mexico. "The Greenland Effect" has perverted most people's notions of the Southern Hemisphere, which has more land mass than our maps suggest. Since Lonely Planet is an AIDS drama, Jody's speech refers to public awareness of an epidemic; but it could also refer to anyone's awareness of death. "This thing that we're living with," as Jody's friend Carl puts it, has more size and weight than we like to admit.

Jody and Carl are gay. Every time a friend of theirs dies of AIDS, Carl brings a chair into Jody's shop. The shop fills with chairs. Carl is a footloose kid with no apparent job (besides chair-collecting) who handles the idea of death better than Jody. We learn halfway through the play that Jody lives and sleeps in his store because going outside scares him. He locks the door and pretends not to be there one night when Carl shows up with a chair. In what may be the most dramatic scene of the play -- because it's so noisy -- Carl breaks a pane of glass in Jody's shop door with the leg of a chair and calmly lets himself in.

Lonely Planet might have been almost pertinent four years ago, when it premiered in the Midwest, because the chasm between AIDS and public awareness (appalling in the '80s) was that much closer to being current. A play like this shouldn't feel dated, since people still die of AIDS. But Lonely Planet never wades far enough into Jody's personal sense of mortality to survive: It was written as a wake-up call, and it doesn't work that way anymore. John Hogan is lively and funny as Carl, telling maniacal lies about a talking Jesus on an old woman's dinner plate and even walking in on one of Jody's monologues ("I hope I'm not interrupting," he says, eyeing the audience), but when the show treads below its sure comedy into murky, uncertain grief, it falls apart like the rest of us. Emotional gestures and lines are just sentiment; silences last too long. "We are together, Carl," says Jody, telling Carl about a dream he's had, about being onstage with Joe Cocker's band. "We are together. And we are singing." Ick.

The title is also oblique. This planet does get lonely when your friends start to die; but Carl also feels compelled to mention the astronauts who first photographed the Earth: "They captured a planet, small and alone, surrounded by enormous darkness," he says, in a digression that does nothing for the play but legitimize the title. Such digressions give a Greenland Effect to the show itself by distracting everyone -- playwright, actors, and audience -- from the focus of grief.

-- Michael Scott Moore

The Farmer Cometh
A Moon for the Misbegotten. By Eugene O'Neill. Directed by Theo Collins. Starring Tammara Plankers, John Anthony Nolan, and George Adams. At the Masquers Playhouse, 105 Park Place, Point Richmond, through May 10. Call (510) 232-4031.

Eugene O'Neill lived in the drunk and disillusioned Broadway world of Long Day's Journey Into Night; but he also wrote well about gritty, soil-toughened New England farmers like Ephraim Cabot in Desire Under the Elms. The two worlds were his personal Town and Country, his fleshed-out set of opposites, and his last play, A Moon for the Misbegotten, shows an edgy romance between them. It's about a Connecticut farmer's daughter with a sluttish reputation and the alcoholic actor/playboy who owns her father's land. The playboy, Jim Tyrone, drops in on the farm one afternoon, interested in light conversation, free whiskey, and maybe sex; but the bitter old farmer and his daughter, Josie, have deeper designs. They set up a tryst with Tyrone for that night with the idea of forcing him to marry into the family. The play is frankly sexual for the 1940s, when O'Neill, already a Nobel Prize winner, wrote it; censors dogged it while he was alive. ("I don't care what kind of prize he won, I won't let him put on filth in my town," one censor reportedly said.)

The trap, of course, goes wrong. No one quite gets what he (or she) wants, although Tyrone does get drunk. But by dawn in the third act O'Neill has drawn a redeeming tenderness from his Town and Country characters that makes their conniving seem petty. This is strong material. The play has an obsessive back-story that would strain any professional company, never mind an amateur suburban group like the Masquers Playhouse; but the delightful shock is that the Masquers do it right. John Anthony Nolan plays Phil -- the white-haired, pipe-smoking, overall-wearing Irish farmer -- with a compelling mix of orneriness and pained compassion. If he's too gentle by a few degrees he makes up for it with infectious character tics, like the way he twists his pipe while he plots. Nolan actually is Irish, or Irish-descended, so he has the most convincing accent; Tammara Plankers isn't as convincing voicewise but she holds down the central role of Josie with a funny, coarse, sharp tongue.

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