Stage

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.

George Adams plays Tyrone, the tie-wearing New Yorker. The problems with his performance equal the problems with the show, because it's Tyrone who has the back-story, the load of memories he wants to forget. As long as he's relaxed, Adams is a convincing drunk. But when the script needs him to be desperate, his performance strains. The second act of Moon asks endurance both from Adams and from the audience as it descends into O'Neill's tangled, dramaless region of passionate babble. The playwright needs to be edited when he gets carried away like this, especially if the actors can't hold up the script. But nothing in the long night of Act 2 ruins the show. The old farmer turns up again at the end, drunk and plot-foiled, working not just as a reminder of the family's conniving but also as comic relief; and the Masquers, in their Point Richmond playhouse, show enough talent to hold their own in the city.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Desk Jobs
Skyscraper. By Elijah Aron. Directed by Aron. Starring Sarah Bennett, Jennifer Fitch, Jean Mazzei, Rob Waller, Anthony Lacques, and Steve Uchida. At the Red Rocket Theater, 2985 21st St., through May 3. Call 647-2065.

In Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt used the phrase "banality of evil" to describe the Gestapo chief's workaday attitude toward administrating genocide. Though few of us have been called upon to work that bad a job, anyone who has stepped inside a modern corporate office lately has probably experienced at least a taste of the ethical dissociation that Arendt observed. Yet aside from Mamet and his work-wise iambic pentameter, relatively few American playwrights have approached the issue without sentimentality or finger-wagging.

Elijah Aron doesn't fall victim to these pitfalls. In his stark, clean production, the 26-year-old playwright and director chisels a vivid if modest portrait of corporate culture, with its denizens balancing large humiliations with small dignities. Set in the military-green phone bank of a San Francisco high-rise in 1998, the play focuses on the employees of Holiday Credit, a collection agency that duns hospital patients who haven't paid their bills. While agents Peppermint, June, and Christian play the phones like seasoned con artists, Mr. Peterson, their supervisor, watches from his elevated office, monitoring their calls and exhorting them to meet their "daily goals."

Aron has an almost anthropological eye for bureaucratic euphemism and an offbeat wit that is rarely merely clever. "We're not a collection agency," pipes Peppermint (an exquisitely caustic Sarah Bennett), "but a credit resettlement firm." After June, played by a squeaky-cute Jennifer Fitch, brags about her previous night of "not sleeping all night with Robert," she asks how Peppermint spent her evening. "I was sleeping all night with Robert," Peppermint replies. "She's just teasing me," June explains to Christian. "I hate you," says Peppermint, without an ounce of subtext.

It turns out that Robert is not only June's husband but the same doltish Mr. Peterson who lords over them. Here the line between humane underlings and demonic bosses breaks down. Elizabeth, a single, middle-aged woman who has given her life to the company, completes the picture of the workplace as dysfunctional family. Channeling her own emotional needs by becoming the office therapist, she croons platitudes like "Peppermint's really lonely right now" or "June is just trying to get our attention."

The clunky mystery of who's been stealing from the company coffers demonstrates that Aron has yet to master the art of dramatic plotting. In particular, the final two scenes deteriorate into step-by-step exposition; with nothing better to do, the actors tumble below their otherwise high standards and resort to childlike recitation. And yet Aron's keen eye for quirky characters left me hoping the final blackout was really just an intermission. In the small moments of causal hypocrisy and feckless cruelty, Skyscraper ignites an all-too-familiar territory of an evil so banal and pervasive we hardly know it's there.

-- Carol Lloyd

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