Friends in Crisis

Arnie Burton and Matt McGrath in Steven Dietz’s “Lonely Planet,” directed by Jonathan Silverstein, at the Clurman at Theatre Row through November 18. | CAROL ROSEGG

Steven Dietz’s “Lonely Planet” is a terrific play from Keen Theater, laced with humor and piercing little jabs of melancholy, about two friends Jody (Arnie Burton) and Carl (Matt McGrath) in a fraught time, namely the plague years of AIDS. I once had a friend, since deceased, who, although a brilliant guy in many ways, was a complete fabulist. Although we were the best of friends, he kept his positive HIV status from me for years and, when he finally told me, said he contracted it one day while walking along Broadway on the Upper West Side, when a van screeched to a halt, somebody grabbed him and threw him in the back, where he was raped by five men.

The character of Carl and the play’s context reminded me of him, for Carl also constantly evades the truth in favor of embroidered fancies, which the hilariously rococo McGrath effusively spouts to a usually very tolerant, bemused Burton, who sometimes glancingly evokes Jack Benny’s classic slow timing. These are two proudly out gay actors we’ve enjoyed for decades now, at the very peak of their powers, resulting in the greatest two-hander I’ve seen since John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson made our collective jaws drop in Pinter’s “No Man’s Land,” back in 1975.

Burton said, “I had always heard about this play, one of these titles floating around but had never read it, and then I got a call from our director, Jonathan Silverstein, who sent it to me. I thought ‘Ohmigod, this is fantastic!’ Although it was written in 1993, it isn’t dated at all. And although it’s about AIDS on a certain level, it’s really about friendship and how we deal with a crisis.Actually, AIDS is never mentioned or what city or year it takes place in.

Arnie Burton and Matt McGrath are night and day buds in Steven Dietz’s “Lonely Planet”

“This was actually one of the harder plays I’ve done because it’s about these two friends who communicate with one another but aren’t being honest with each other at the same time. Everything is subtextual, so we had to find out what that was before we could put all the layers onto it, like pain and denial.”

I remarked that to Burton that his quiet, wry, subdued, and often mournful performance, like playing straight man to McGrath’s dazzling flamboyance, was certainly a change of pace for him, more known as an ace comedic wiz of a performer, from his virtuosic “The 39 Steps” to his last dual — or was it triple? — performance in “The Government Inspector.”

He replied, “That’s exactly why I wanted to do this one! Because, although quite funny, it doesn’t necessarily rely on comedy, and I to get to play just one character with one throughline.”

Praising director Silverstein, Burton said, “It was so good, just what I was hoping for. Because you could easily see a bad version of this play, über sentimental. Jonathan had the right approach and such good taste about paring away the sentiment to get to the real emotion and also letting the laughs come but never pushing it so that it always felt really real.It was all organic and flowed very naturally.

“The play was written by a straight man, so it’s not so specific. Like when my character says his favorite song is one by Dylan sung by Joe Cocker, which isn’t what one would expect from a gay man. It’s not Cher, so that’s kind of refreshing, that distance that this writer has.”

Turning to his co-star, Burton said, “I love the way you say your lines about all these friends who have passed and how what you do is your way of remembering so many people who were not necessarily famous but who deserved to be remembered.”

McGrath replied, “I had heard about this and then was asked to do it not long before the opening date. And my immediate thought was, ‘Who dropped out this time? Call old reliable Matt McGrath!’ [Laughs.] But the company said, ‘No, this is how we do things.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, thank God I don’t have to bring that into the room with me.’

“It was kind of hard to learn the lines when you’re not exactly sure what the intention is. And if it’s that elliptical, it’s so easy to get turned around. My friends who have seen it told me, ‘Oh, you guys make it look so easy.’ It wasn’t. We’ve seen AIDS plays that deal with the lovers, mothers, fathers, but rarely about friendship, and I think that’s the beauty of this play. I know this straight couple — husband and wife — who came to see it, and he waited until they got to their car in the parking lot before he burst into tears. Because it reminded him of his male friendships.

“I think the show Carl is always putting on stems from the vitality that has been lost by his friends who had all of these jobs that he hears about and full lives, before AIDS. All these lost unheralded people. For us, who lived through that time, we know what that was all about. So many great actors I knew, so many mentors to me, certainly.”

McGrath was born right here in Manhattan, “in the hospital on 114th Street, and I grew up in Stuyvestant Town. My father, Chris McGrath, was deputy borough president, and my grandfather, Christopher Columbus McGrath, was a congressman for the Bronx. Although everyone in my family acts, none of them are union. [Laughs.] Actually, my grandmother was tutor to the children of José Ferrer and Rosemary Clooney, one show biz connection, and I even made a movie in 1991 with Miguel Ferrer.”

McGrath began acting early, at age five, playing the little son of “Madama Butterfly” at the Metropolitan Opera, a part now essayed by a puppet in its latest Anthony Minghella production of the Puccini.

“Yeah, replaced by a puppet,” McGrath laughed. “It was something to be that young and being sung to by some diva, inches away from your face at top volume, in front of 4,500 people. I then went on to do all the boy parts in operas, then played the newsboy in the Broadway musical ‘Working,’ and got my Equity card. I’ve been very lucky and have been working a long time. I’m actually one of the jokes in our show — ‘Name the child stars who had horrible subsequent lives!’ [Laughs.]

“I took a break from acting, just to have a normal life and go to school, and went to Fordham for a while.”

When McGrath returned to the profession, one of the first things he did was Paul Zindel’s quite astonishing, ornately titled “Amulets Against the Dragon Forces,” set in Staten Island, about an alcoholic who preys on young boys in the home of his mother, who is dying of cancer. McGrath playing one of his victims, I can still remember his affecting adolescent gawkiness and querulous sing-song delivery of his oppressor’s name, Mr. DiPardi. It was a career breakthrough for young Matt — “all about denial and self-protection” — and something he remembers with affection.

As far as growing up gay, McGrath recalled, “I was smack in the middle of five boys. My parents had gay friends, plus so many theater people we knew, and my father never had a problem with it. I was talking with my family about how we were all raised with a lot of love, etc., and my siblings kindly reminded, ‘No, you were.’ [Laughs.] I guess I was kind of spoiled.”

Burton, for his part, really pushed the envelope by asking for a Barbie doll for Christmas when he was four.

“And my dad — a fy fisherman and hunter — actually gave it to me! That was kind of an amazing moment. I was born in Idaho, farm country, and then we moved to Tucson, Arizona. I was a really weird child, incredibly shy. I would literally come out of my room to watch an old horror movie on TV, and then go back to my room to read ‘Famous Monsters of Filmland’ and assemble my model monsters. My mom was grateful when acting came up early for me as I came out of my shell, but there were no other actors in the family.

“In junior high, I tried my best to fade away and just blend in. My everyday uniform was a T-shirt with brown cords, I didn’t want any attention drawn to me. But I remember there were these Indian sandals the cool kids wore and I got a pair. I remember sitting in class, and everyone turned to look at me wearing them, like ‘Who does he think he is?’

“I ran home and changed into my regular shoes and stayed that way forever. It shut something down in me of wanting to be fabulous. College is where you kind of fall into yourself, and my shyness dissipated, although it’s still there. I never wanted to be famous but I did want to be part of a community. That’s how I wanted to feel, and now New York is kind of like college in a way, you just know everyone.”

Although both actors are, quite happily, steadily employed, neither craves big-time stardom. McGrath shuddered, “I know famous people, and have lived with them [Gwy-neth Paltrow, for one, all through the Brad Pitt years]. You get to see what it’s like from the inside and just how much they can and cannot do. People staring at you all the time?!

“I went to High School of Music & Art here, with all these kids wondering whether or not to move to LA for career. It says a lot about yourself, which one you choose, where your heart is. And Jennifer Aniston is my hero, because back then she was like, ‘I don’t know what you’re gonna do, but I’m going!’ I have to hand it right to her, she knew exactly what she wanted.”

McGrath is currently single, and Burton has had a partner for years, handsome and charming Yuki Lim, who is Korean and president of his own real estate design firm, Apartment 168. We got to exchange some hardcore, kim chi-flavored Korean mom war stories, and Burton told me it took forever for Yuki’s mother to even acknowledge his existence. But it’s gotten much better, although there was the Thanksgiving when Yuki went home and she told him, although his siblings would be talking about their families, not to say anything about Arnie.

“He got right into his car and drove back to the Chicago airport for the next flight to New York,” Burton recalled with pride. “I love him!”

LONELY PLANET | Theatre Row-Clurman Theatre, 410 W. 42nd St. | Through Nov. 18: Tue.-Thu. at 7 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $65-$80; $20 on Tue. at keencompany.org/lonely-planet | Two hrs., with intermission

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