Back in high school, I’d spend my languid evenings at Mad City, a local coffee shop. The title is ironic since there’s nothing mad about my suburban home, yet it drew an intriguing mix of people. Aside from a couple other classmates, I’d see young burn-outs and drifters. They were in a passive state of suspended animation, as if Mad City offered perpetual solace from a world that passed them by. The Aliens, the new play at the Studio Theater by Annie Baker, knows this type well. Through deliberate silence and empathy, she captures the melancholy romance of young men who are perpetually stuck.
KJ (Scot McKenzie) and Jasper (Peter O’Connor) sit quietly in the alley of a Vermont coffee shop. Jasper looks angry as he smokes, and KJ finally breaks the silence with a song. The lyrics do not make any sense, and since this does not bother Jasper, it does not bother us, either. They chat a bit about an ex-girlfriend when Evan (Brian Miskell) enters the alley from the back door. Evan is working before his senior year of high school, and he’s seen guys like this before. After Evan tells them to leave, KJ assures him it’s alright if they stay. Jasper likes Evan, in his way, and over the next few days they form a strange friendship.
At least a third of The Aliens unfolds in silence, and that’s because Baker understands its power. The silence here can be awkward, tragic, and even comforting. By giving the actors fewer lines than the typical play, their dialogue has more meaning. That is not to say, however, the three young men always talk about important stuff. They joke around – parts of the play are gently funny – and reveal more about themselves when they let their guard down. Midway through the second act, Baker reveals her hand and gives us a coming-of-age story, but it’s impressive how she and director Lila Neugebauer strip away conventional narrative to find the minimum that’s necessary to tell a story effectively. Her work is reminiscent of filmmaker Kelly Reichert, except Baker takes an even bigger risk since the screen offers a separation the stage does not.
Baker understands the significance behind a new friend’s first invitation. When someone new invites you into their circle, however small, it can mean the world if you’re someone lonely. Evan experiences that here, and Miskell wisely downplays the joy of his character. Evan speaks with reservations – maybe high school has taught him that people can cruel – yet the performance has its moments of joy. As KJ, McKenzie has the most lines, although at one point Baker has him repeat the same word for what felt like five minutes. He’s always acting, even when he’s saying nonsense, and McKenzie finds the necessary depth so that the repeated word is weirdly heartbreaking.
Still, the play is at its strongest when O’Connor is on stage. He commands the space easily (he played the same character in the play’s San Francisco run), imbuing Jasper with the loose confidence of a beat poet. When he repeats Evan’s last name, he communicates friendliness without the usual affection. The first act culminates with an original song, and even though Jasper is a powerful performer, it is plain to see he’ll never move beyond the alley. More than most stage characters, O’Connor makes us want to be Jasper’s pal.
The title The Aliens refers to a poem by Charles Bukowski, who wrote about men like KJ and Jasper. In the poem, he writes how aimless men are aliens to those of us with families, jobs, or ambition. Bukowski’s poem is mostly defiant: he sees the courage and camaraderie in a different path. Baker’s goal is not quite the same. She does not advocate for a lifestyle, and instead wants us to understand people we would ignore otherwise. Evan will never be quite like KJ and Jasper, but thanks of their brief time together, the difference between them will never be so stark.
The Aliens is at The Studio Theatre until December 23rd. Buy tickets here!