nytheatre.com review by Stephen Kaliski
April 17, 2010
The word "aliens" naturally implies a certain antagonism toward "the other," an inherent fear and loathing of the unfamiliar. Whether aliens from outer space, aliens crossing the border, or aliens living inside us, these intruders exist beyond the limits of our empathy.
So perhaps the greatest miracle of The Aliens, Annie Baker's spare yet generous triumph at Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre, is its rich empathy for its alienated anti-heroes.
On the surface, this "white-dude" loser play bears all the trappings of other studies in whiny, angst-ridden, too-smart-for-their-own-good outcasts. Normally, we want to smack these guys for gratuitously complaining about nothing. What separates Baker's work from the pack is her understanding that this alienating nothingness is something we all feel. Her tender, restrained, frequently hilarious play makes us all participants in its loneliness instead of skeptics of it.
The Aliens takes place on the back stoop of a small town New England coffee shop, where two thickly bearded loners have created a virtually undisturbed Zen den. Jasper (Erin Gann) seethes over his recent breakup, sourcing his anger into a first draft of a debut novel. His buddy KJ (Michael Chernus), a philosophizing college dropout, listens supportively while brewing tea from psychedelic 'shrooms.
The relative ease of their early July musings is interrupted when Evan (Dane DeHaan), a socially awkward coffee shop employee, begins spending time with them. Evan is younger than KJ and Jasper, inexperienced with women, discontent with America, and wholly at a loss for an identity. In short, he has a lot to learn from his burnt out friends.
Thus, at Evan's arrival, The Aliens deftly follows the formula of "the unlikely companions." These guys are all lone rangers who have ceased to be lone, dissociative wanderers who have discovered commonalities almost in spite of themselves.
While this seems like a scenario for easy schmaltz, Baker avoids an annoying theatre of self-awareness by resisting all temptations for earnest melodrama. Just when the characters seem on the verge of speaking perceptively about their isolation, Baker pulls back, preferring to find resonance in their monosyllables.
In fact, one simple word captures the prevailing style of the play: silence. Baker expertly navigates the life lived between the lines, allowing her characters to process each other without heaps of forced dialogue. The result is a verbal economy of surprising emotional weight, a heartfelt exploration of the alienation of language as well as feeling. One could probably read the script in 20 minutes; the play itself, however, lasts a very full and rewarding two hours.
Sam Gold's patient, unfussy direction deserves much of the credit for this masterful pacing. From the moment of the first weighty silence, the trust between director and playwright is clear. A less certain hand may have rushed Baker's text, but Gold understands that the default universe of the play lies in staring, thinking, shrugging, and simply being.
Chernus, Gann, and DeHaan could teach a class on variations in effortlessness. Their exactingly specific, delightfully understated performances welcome the audience into their back stoop world with total ease. They are the perfect conduits for Baker's minimalism and Gold's unhurried staging.
Andrew Lieberman's orange and blue set evokes the falsely bright moods of a deep American summer. Its attention to grungy, trashy detail beautifully contrasts with its surface brightness, making it an ideal mirror for the loners' aloofness.
Baker borrows her title from Charles Bukowski's poem "The Aliens," which concludes with the line "but they are there / and I am here." Baker's The Aliens is less a call to action than a recognition of distance between two elusive poles. It's a glittering yet mournful masterpiece about the pandemic loneliness of which all of us—"white dude" or otherwise—are symptomatic.