Hosanna! Hallelujah! Hooray! The Herberger has a hit!
We have been told that by acquiring a major league baseball franchise, Phoenix will become one of America's premier cities. Until now, sunny Phoenix has languished in the shadows of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, San Diego and Minneapolis--not only because these urban centers field teams, but also because they are principal hotbeds of artistic creativity. Even more than their sports clubs, great cities can be measured by the quality of their artistic production.

The cheers you hear from downtown may be the harbinger that we've arrived, for a major new play has come to town. At Herberger Theater Center, the Actors Theatre of Phoenix is giving us the chance to see Steven Dietz's hilarious and mysterious comedy Lonely Planet several months before it premires in New York, albeit two years after its debut in Chicago.

The curtain rises on darkness. A light reveals a simple chair, then a man contemplating the empty chair's existence. Upstage, through slatted shutters that flank the entrance to the room, a neon light flashes a red alert from a dangerous world outside. On a steeply raked platform are somberly arranged (in neat rows four across and three deep) 12 massive walnut desks, laid out like silent coffins. They contain, we discover, maps--for this strange room is a map shop.

Looming above the door and shuttered windows, three contrasting maps cast an eerie glow. The central one is the familiar blue planet (photographed from space on the Apollo 17 mission) that has become the accepted image of our world.

To the left is the old Mercator projection, named after Gerhardus Mercator, the 16th-century Flemish geographer. This is the map we may remember from grade school: latitudes and longitudes parallel, producing a flat image that distorts sizes, so that Greenland becomes a behemoth, larger than South America.

On the right is a conical projection map, the Peters' version, correcting Mercator's distortions, but introducing new warps of its own. Here the sizes are accurate, but the land masses are twisted into unfamiliar shapes.

Maps, we are told, are a picture of what is known. The distortions speak for themselves.

In this landscape, we meet two post-Beckett clowns, aching to understand the world they inhabit. Mindful of their own distortions, they play games to enliven an existence filled with dreaded questions.

The empty chair that begins the play becomes an eloquent metaphor. One by one, Carl brings chairs to the ordered world of Jody's map shop, until by the second act, the chairs compose a mountain of cultural detritus.

At first the source of the chairs is a mystery that Carl deflects with inventive lies. Incrementally, we begin to understand that each chair is a legacy of another of Carl's friends who has prematurely died of AIDS complications.

To distract themselves from grim reality, Jody and Carl play a series of games that become as much fun for the audience as for the participants. This is life in the Nineties.

Jody, who owns the map store, relates a series of dreams, each more desperate and frustrating than the last. A compulsive habitu of thrift stores, Jody keeps buying items that trigger extravagant dreams.

First, he buys a firefighter's shirt, and this gives birth to a dream in which he is a firefighter, with people begging to be rescued from the flames.

Next, he finds a silky pair of Everlast trunks, and in his dreams he becomes a boxer, feebly protesting that he's not a hero, as the crowds demand a champion.

Finally, a leather jacket engenders a dream in which he is a rock singer, belting out a paean of longing that will lead his fans to freedom.

Okay, so the metaphors fly as thick as Van Gogh crows, choking out the sun. Still, the images resonate in our own experience, and Michael Grady plays Jody with such an endearingly modest warmth that we reluctantly accept the metaphors as they pile up. With fears of uncertainty pulsing just below the skin, Grady paints the portrait of an uncommonly civilized man.

Carl, his ebullient friend, is an inveterate liar who improvises spontaneous and spurious employment. He is by turns a lowly man who waters plants for a huge corporation, an art restorer for the museum, a glass-shop glazier, a reporter for a supermarket tabloid, a bartender, a barber. He has the energy of eight and the patience of none.

As played with enormous charm and aplomb by Michael Barnard, Carl is a laughable, lovable goofball who can pitch lines like: "I'm happy; take my picture," and make us smile as broadly as he.

The most telling scene occurs near the end of the play, when Carl calls Jody on the telephone, then, bearing his cellular phone, enters. "I wanted to call and talk to you on the phone, but I didn't want to be alone, so I came over." So the two platonic friends seek intimate communication by way of electronic separation. I have seen no other metaphor that so painfully and powerfully suggests the awkward dilemma posed by the necessity of making love with a condom.

This evocative play has been given a lively and loving production under the expert direction of Jim Pinkerton. The scenic design by Gro Johre fulfills the high standard of excellence we have begun to expect from her. But the most outstanding element of the production is the superlative, masterly lighting by Paul Black, who also provided the Technicolor illumination for Southwest Shakespeare Company's Julius Caesar. Black is the best evidence I've seen that Phoenix already is playing in the artistic big leagues.

Lonely Planet generously acknowledges its debt to Ionesco, and on the heels of In Mixed Company's stunning revival of Exit the King, Actors Theatre has given us an opportunity to understand how the future of dramatic literature stands on the shoulders of the past only to see the present more clearly.

AIDS is now the largest cause of death for Americans between the ages of 25 and 44. What are we to do? What can any one of us do?

We can see Lonely Planet. We can refuse to be comfortable with the world as we see it. We can collectively ache for a cure.

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Marshall W. Mason