You get by with a little help from your friends _ that's the message of the Beatles song that Joe Cocker gave such a memorable interpretation. It's also the message of Lonely Planet, which has Cocker growling his way through another song, Bob Dylan's I Shall Be Released.
"Everyone has one song that can never be turned up too loud. That's mine," says Jody (John Huls) in the two-character play by Steven Dietz at American Stage.
Friendship is the theme, and AIDS is the crisis. Jody, proprietor of a map store, fears getting tested for the virus that causes the syndrome. He won't leave his warm little refuge with maps of the world on the walls. Carl (Brian Shea) encourages his friend to take care of himself and get an HIV test.
Jody and Carl are an eccentric, likable pair. Jody's a "map-geek." Carl's a "nuthead." They're not lovers; they're something rarer _ friends who really get along, despite Carl's propensity to make up stories about himself and Jody's fussbudget habits.
"I am perpetually fighting clutter," Jody tells Carl, who fills up the store with empty chairs, a dramatic device inspired by a Eugene Ionesco play, The Chairs. They are chairs of people who died from AIDS, the invisible multitudes who died too young.
Lonely Planet represents something of a breakthrough for Shea, a wiry little guy with a goatee in a splendidly funny, high-energy performance. "You're like the little brother I never wanted to have," Jody tells Carl.
Huls' Jody is subdued; there's a hollowness to the character, a languid resignation in the face of something too big to cope with.
An interesting thing about Lonely Planet is how it seems like a period piece, though it was premiered only four years ago. When Dietz was writing the play, to test HIV positive amounted to a death sentence. The atmosphere around AIDS was full of more fear and loathing than today when people with the disease are living longer. The play brings back the sense of hopelessness about AIDS that characterized the late '80s and early '90s.
Under Lisa Powers' direction, the play is smoothly paced, but it can't overcome the narrative exuberance of a superb young writer who wasn't vigilant enough in whittling down his script to essentials. A discourse on maps, for example, is impressively smart, but it goes on too long.
The actors' timing was off on opening night, with some funny lines falling flat. When Jody phoned to get his test result, tension was strangely absent.
Kevin Lampman's set and lighting design is a highlight. It makes Jody's Maps a place you'd like to spend more time in.
Steven Dietz's Lonely Planet play runs through Aug. 4 at American Stage. Tickets are $15. Call 822-8814.