Raleigh, NC-based Flying Machine Theatre Co. returns to the Common Ground Theatre in Durham for its latest production: Lonely Planet, a two-man show written by Steven Dietz (Private Eyes) and directed by Bruce Evans. The play is set in Jody’s (Julian “J” Chachula Jr.) place of business, “Jody’s Maps.” Dietz tells us quite a bit about maps through Jody, who considers them to be the “surrogates of space”; they are concrete, fascinating, and they “tell us what we need to know.” But we also learn from Jody that they are usually flawed, in that they view their subject from only one fixed viewpoint. That flaw becomes a focal point later in the play. That’s why Jody explains it to us early in Act One.

It seems inconsequential, but Jody has no customers. At the present time, the city is caught in the grip of an epidemic; and people are dying, in large numbers. Jody’s friends are dying. And Jody himself seems extremely reluctant to even venture outside the store — even to go home. The only person he sees — indeed, the only person he wants to see — is Carl (Jerome Johnson), a long-time friend who “has the energy of five and the patience of none.” Lately, though, the friendship between the two is getting a touch strained, because, nowadays, every time Carl comes to the shop, he brings a chair with him.

Chachula and Johnson work together amazingly well in this production, using the unique circumstances, a highly choreographed scene of one of their games, and simply the friendship that exists between them, all to strong advantage. They also play well off of each other, pointing out the differences between the characters, and illuminating how and why their friendship has remained so strong over the years.

The show is quite comic; Dietz has a wicked ability to make us laugh. But there is far more here than a two-man laugh-fest. Lonely Planet explores the relationship between these two men, their mutual relationship with this epidemic, and the seemingly uncaring attitude of the majority of the city to the plight. And the two do not react to this situation at all the same way. Carl is a whirlwind of activity while Jody is a fixture. The two spend their time playing complicated games, sometimes using long, cardboard map containers as swords, dueling; sometimes telling each other stories. Carl likes to invent a number of different vocations; Jody likes to invent dreams. But they do have one game that Carl does not particularly like; the one where they tell the truth. Lately, Carl sees the truth as a little hard to take.

One might try to take the epidemic in this play at face value, and let it remain unnamed. But Dietz won’t let us. Sprinkled liberally throughout the play are references to what this illness is. Carl is losing his friends, too; by the dozens. Both he can Jody are very soon coming up on appointments at the local clinic to be “tested,” to make sure that they are not infected. And both these characters talk to us, as well as each other; and what they have to tell us is frightening, indeed. All too soon, we know all too well what this epidemic is.

Dietz wrote Lonely Planet in 1992. While that doesn’t seem to be that long ago, it is a very distant past when one realizes that, at that time, the term “living with AIDS” had not yet been coined. That’s because the drugs now used in combating the disease did not exist. In the early 1990s, AIDS was still a death sentence. It was also, for the most part, still limiting itself to the gay populace as its victims. And in that universe, the possibility of an epidemic of AIDS in the U.S. was still a terrible possibility. Dietz never tells us that either Jody or Carl is gay. He never mentions the word AIDS. But he does tell us that one of Carl’s friends was refused the formal burial his fellow police officers received because, according to an anonymous source, “if we had gone, it would be like we were condoning what he did.” That kind of thinking is what is making the city so uncaring. That kind of thinking is what Dietz rails against in this play; the same flaw that exists in maps: the necessity to distort certain parts of the subject in order to keep the perspective necessary when viewing said object from one fixed, unchanging point of view.

Flying Machine Theatre Co. presents Lonely Planet Thursday-Saturday, March 9-11, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, March 12, at 3 p.m.; and Thursday-Saturday, March 16-18, at 8 p.m.; at Common Ground Theatre, 4815B Hillsborough Rd., Durham, North Carolina. $14 ($10 students, teachers, and seniors). 919/594-1140 or via etix at the presenter’s site. Flying Machine Theatre Co.: http://www.theflyingmachine.net/productions/planet.html.