– Michael Russotto and Eric Sutton are sharing the stage in Steve Dietz’ Lonely Planet at MetroStage. Both actors surprised and delighted me with their thoughtfulness and insights into the play. Due to schedules, I interviewed them separately and have joined our dialogues here to capture their feelings about why this play is so special. –
I’ll start with the obvious question. Why do this play 20 years later? Director John Vreeke addressed his thoughts in his director’s notes, but I’d like to give you (both) a crack at it as its actors.
Michael: I’ve been in love with this play since the early nineties. I’ve wanted to do the play and I’ve never had the opportunity. This felt like a huge piece of luck when Carolyn lost another play in her season, and John Vreeke asked me if I would be interested in doing this role.
Eric: I am still so absorbed in the play, so all my comments are character specific. I love my character, Carl. I love the emotional range. I love being given a whole canvas. I love a play that makes me laugh and sometimes even cry. I love the grasp of friendship Steve Dietz has for two gay men.
What are the new things you are finding?
It’s so timely and so relevant. While we’ve had some success with keeping people alive with drugs, it’s still a deadly disease that’s killing people, and there’s still a stigma attached to it and bigotry towards the people who have contacted it. For this, it’s an important play to do
In the original production, Dietz, who is straight, directed and cast 2 straight men. Is there something important that both you and John felt that you could say because the three of you are gay?
Eric: It wasn’t to me, but I think to John it was important.
Michael: Well, we certainly discussed it, and John did say he wanted to cast gay men. Perhaps he thought the close experiences we might have had with the issue of AIDS affecting our community to such a large proportion in the U.S. would come through.
Eric: He cast a man he thought was Carl and a man he saw as Jody. He was certainly correct that Carl is in me. But it doesn’t have to be. This play is bigger than that.
Michael: And I think there’s too much of that going around – that you have to be gay to act or direct a gay play, black to do a black play, and so on. I believe we are human beings, and hopefully, we have some empathy for issues that are human issues. It’s exhausting to feel put in a box, and it’s exhausting to feel you have to put others in a box. It’s sad that this kind of limiting thinking is so prevalent. I think we feel that this is not a play about AIDS, but at its heart about two dear friends.
Eric: The play never mentions AIDS.
Once you were in rehearsal and going to work on the play, were there things that seemed particularly difficult or challenging?
Michael: There is something always in a play that challenges. In Lonely Planet, there is very little stage direction. I appreciate that. The playwright is letting the actor figure it out. But because there are the few, very specific stage directions, we felt we really needed to ask ourselves why he so selectivity included those.
The scene we had the most trouble with is the scene where we talk about the painting, where Carl says he is going to restore the art, and Jody keeps challenging him on it. We went through several permutations where we were trying to put all this importance to it and to make it mean more than it did. Ultimately, we said let’s just go back to a simple objective. “I don’t believe you are going to restore art and I’m challenging you on it because I want to know where you are going. And you are really good at lying about it.”
So, it’s really about calling your friend out about the lies?
Michael: Yes, it’s not about art at all, and it’s not about symbolism of the painting. It took some real struggle to figure out how we are going to play that.
Eric: Also, there are a lot of words in this play, and John was very good about helping us discover what to emphasize and what we could afford to let fly. He was also good at harvesting the silences, and maybe that gave it a new pulse and balance appropriate for 2012.
The play blends a lot of styles. Steve Dietz pays some homage to the absurdist Ionesco, for instance, with the proliferation of chairs on the stage. How did you approach this mixing up of styles?
Michael: I think the blending of styles is done very intentionally.
Eric: For me, I can’t really think in terms of themes or styles. I take every moment at face value. Every moment is 100% reality to Carl. All lined up, it may seem to be a lot of stylistic quirkiness – but maybe it’s just Carl’s way to honor his lost friends or to deal with his survival guilt.
Michael: And I think Jody likes Carl because he is that quirky. He’s fun to be around. And we hope it’s fun for the audience.
Eric: At some moments the play is like a slice of life. But there’s all this musicality in it. And it’s chock full of laughs. Audiences get that.
Do you get audiences who don’t get the chairs? Do you feel or work for a certain moment where they should finally get it?
Michael: It happens different places on different nights. Some people get it sooner rather than later. When Jody says, “You aren’t really going to restore art, you’re going out to get more chairs, it sometimes gets a big laugh. Many people may think he has just got a chair fetish. The crazy guy keeps dragging chairs in here. I love that! I think a lot of people get it when Carl has that speech about why he goes out and gets the chairs. Some people don’t get it until Carl’s chair appears at the end. I think that’s great.
And what would you say to people who might at first seem reluctant to see a play that asks audiences to look at something that is also painful at times?
Michael: It goes back to two things. One is that people have come to view movies and television as entertainment, and rather than be beaten up emotionally, people want to have some relief at the horror going on in the world. But I also think people have got used to being told what to feel and how to think. It’s a lot what television does. Our media tends to underrate the audience. I love plays that are ambiguous. The older I get the more bored I get when things are tied up at the end in nice little bows.
And doesn’t theatre offer at its best the classic cathartic connection? This is a play not only beautifully written but very powerful. What is it that you two working on stage together want us take away about the play?
Eric: Isn’t it about how friends define each other, challenge each other, and at times comfort each other?
Michael: A play like this enriches your soul, that’s absolutely true. And it reminds us of what is important, that it’s our relationships that are important. We will be running for almost another month, and word of mouth is beginning to excite people to come to MetroStage to see us. It’s a joy to do this play.
Related: DCTS review of Lonely Planet