A New Kind of Theater

Cleveland has become a city full of little renaissances: new teams, new hotels, and even a new Scene. Every mom-and-pop diner and ramshackle shack is being gentrified for the millennium. To add to the bustle, right between the downtown frat-house frolic of Cabaret Dada and the off-Broadway prestige of Coventry's Dobama, in the heart of the Oriental Restaurant Row on St. Clair, we have the new Brick Alley Theatre.

Artistic Director Christopher D. Nekvinda, fresh out of Slippery Rock College, has proved malt-shop entrepreneurism still thrives. A lightbulb flashed off Nekvinda's cranium, and thus was born the inspired notion of combining three quintessential Nineties' institutions: the back alley theater, the coffeehouse, and the massage parlor.

Brick Alley, which promises to be a godsend for bohemians of every age and inclination, provides one a haven where espressos of all flavors can be imbibed while simultaneously translating Proust and being lovingly worked over by the dexterous digits of house massage-therapist Ryan J. Davis. On subsequent nights patrons may click their tongues to the rhythms of a folk singer, flex their funny bones at a comedy act, or thrill their senses to pounding drama millimeters away from their noses.

Lonely Planet by Steven Dietz is the current theatrical distraction (through November 22). The bad news is that, yes, it's another AIDS play; the good is that the insidious disease here serves only as what Alfred Hitchcock called a MacGuffin. This is the work of a playwright who very obviously spent his schooldays immersed in the surrealism of Ionesco and the staccato vaudeville alienation of Samuel Beckett, while his weekends must have been spent in the madcap mind games of Edward Albee and fox-trotting with Laurel and Hardy.

In Jody's Maps Emporium the only sales are pithy observations on the state of mankind. ("We're no longer hunters, only browsers and nibblers.") Two verbose misfits colorfully bicker and expose their interdependence and inadequacies while playing out their disassociation from the world on an emotional xylophone that reaches from camp bitchiness to macho games, culminating in some inexplicable resignation.

Benjamin Lesh as the pudgy storeowner barricades himself in his airless establishment and cooks up comparisons between the distortions of maps and the hostility of this angry planet. He skillfully evokes the adolescent dementia of one of those obese comic-book storeowners--the type that invariably ends up in the hoosegow for indecent exposure to someone's Aunt Tilly. His fear of AIDS is inexplicable, since he seems never to have been touched (at least carnally) by human hands.

Steev'n J. Eyerman justifies his odd moniker by bringing a weird sexual buzz to the play as a bleached-blond, goateed dervish, whirling around the stage, creating a one-man brass band of changing personalities and diverse psychopathic identities. He's an engaging composite of generations of bad puppies, from Christopher Marlowe to Joe Orton.

The play suggests one of those inadequately subtitled foreign films that takes you to fascinating places, leaving the how and why of it a mystery. Director Nekvinda and his cast make an able first impression on our psyches. Since Clevelanders are as stubborn as any Iowan River City denizens when it comes to sampling a first-time product, it's most appropriate to resort to good old advertising hard sell as we state:

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