What makes ordinary people and ordinary lives so interesting that you want to write a play about two thirty-something slackers?
We live in the day and age of self- indulgence and reality TV popularity. When the rare theatrical occasion of that same focused attention is in the controlled environment of a theater setting – audiences are treated to a production like Annie Baker’s The Aliens where patrons have a “real” interactive opportunity to enjoy the confessional intimacy experience.
Between the white noise silences and “the ordinary,” something absolutely extraordinary happens!
The Aliens is The Studio Theatre’s latest production, written by 2010 OBIE Award winning (Best New American Play) playwright Annie Baker, and inspired by the Charles Bukowski poem by the same name. The finely nuanced, character driven play has nothing to do with the paranormal, UFOs, or a James Cameron movie, and everything to do with the loose conversational threads of social and personal acceptance, friendship, and love.
On the surface, the play appears to be simple and straightforward. But, human beings are three-dimensional creatures, and the deception lies in Baker’s clever craftsmanship subtly creating depth and potent emotional reveals – like a magician’s deft sleight of hand.
Annie Baker’s confident understanding of language and how real people speak, and the ability to translate that into an absorbing artistic, theatrical experience is impressive.
More than simply a theatrical device, the palette of aching silences, dizzying repetition, and long pauses are a stylized blueprint of the provocative originality of Baker’s voice, her ear for false bravado, and her pulse on the social whines of a generation in Contemporary America. We never sound the way we think we sound, and when confronted with it, one feels either a warmth to the familiarity or a visceral disconnect because of the lack of obvious eloquence.
Set in the fictional college town of Shirley, Vermont, two creative thirty-something slackers – on the edge, poet KJ (Scott McKenzie) and chain-smoking, aspiring novelist Jasper (Peter O’Connor) regularly spend languid days at home to a picnic table surrounded by a dumpster, a recycling bin and a few well-used chairs behind a coffeehouse, entered via the back alley. There in the employee break area of the coffeehouse they exchange meditations into the intricacies of cult icon Charles Bukowski and the philosophy of life, calculus and psilocybin (psychedelic ‘shrooms) or simply embrace the long silences in between.
Self-described “geniuses,” KJ and Jasper, share a brotherly love, and find Bukowski more than a title source. They are actually living the life. (The Aliens is also one of their imaginary Band names). They are two seemingly unemployed individuals trapped in an alternative lifestyle who surround themselves with philosophy, half-sung song lyrics, and the vulnerabilities of cigarettes, drugs, alcohol, and failed relationships with the opposite sex. The self-pitying is done to perfection.
Lila Neugebauer’s intuitive direction of the detached philosophical questions and intellectual pondering poignantly creates an authentic no-frills environment and she elicits incredibly instinctive performances from the actors. Neugbauer was also the director of the West Coast premiere of The Aliens this Spring at the SF Playhouse and she is reunited with the captivating talents of Peter O’Conner (Jasper) and Brian Miskell (Evan) who are reprising their roles.
The laid back likeability of Peter O’Conner’s performance as the good willed, guitar-playing Jasper, is as refreshing as it is tragic. Scott Mckenzie is fearless in his transformative bed head, scruffy beard, ripped jeans and faded T-shirt portrayal of the lethargic, sad but funny KJ. The costume design by Meghan Raham is appropriately understated, and the roll out of bed, sloppy casual looks are exquisitely detailed down to KJ’s well-worn sneakers and Jasper’s shoes with missing laces.
Brian Miskell is riveting and spot on perfection as Evan Shelmerdine, the slouching, sensitive coffeehouse new employee who tries in vain to relay the employees only rule for the back patio. Silence. The two respond with their nonverbal intensity … And soon after, Shelmerdine’s wide-eyed innocence is fascinated into their inner zone – a safe space where he might belong too. The lonely 17-year old encounters personal freedom and revelations into the adult world as a social peer for the first time.
The growing acceptance and interdependence among the three forms a quiet, unlikely bond and an unique friendship.
“they have moments of
but all in all
they are undisturbed
and often feel
– Charles Bukowski, “The Aliens”
Neugebauer possesses skilled talent in making Annie Baker’s scripted silences, one word monologues, and the sense of nothing much happening in ordinary situations -authoritative, heartbreakingly touching, and truly unforgettable.
The natural, offbeat rhythm and deliberate pacing of the two act structure of this play have the courage not to go for the easy laughs but to fully embrace both the humor and sadness of the ineffectual characters and their unhappy situations without losing its edge or compassion. The characters fidget, read aloud, sing, rant … and share repetitive painful memories with a fragmented delivery, just like real people do. The scenes end on moments of silence or staring off into space instead of with a decisive action or combative dialogue.
The heighten auditory display of crackling Fourth of July fireworks, highlighted the pulsating flow of Stowe Nelson’s exceptional sound design, and the bold musical selections during the scene changes kept me fully engaged and in sync – balancing the powerful emotional residue left on stage by the characters deafening long silences.
The outdoor set design by Daniel Conway – the weathered, greyish-brown wood siding of the coffeehouse, the worn plastic chairs and dingy picnic furniture, and the rusted metal utility fixtures – are an outstanding display of everyday realism. The cement patio floor with a few spots of green growing between the cracks anchors a completely authentic environment setting the tone for the bleak overtones and decaying undertones of the play.
“but I am not one of
them . . .”
– Charles Bukowski, “The Aliens”
Is Annie Baker’s The Aliens, art imitating life, or upon reflection will it be life imitating art?
When we first meet them – Jasper, trailer park kid turned aspiring novelist; KJ, the VMU double major (calculus, philosphy) college junior drop out who has psychological issues that require medication, and the unsure, awkward indifference of Evan Shelmerdine – we think we know them. Aren’t we all aware of or know guys like these?
Yet, the more time we spend K.J, Jasper, and Evan the sooner we realize that not only are they recognizable, they are slow reveals of own personality hues and shared dreams. The highly relatable social desire for an authentic connection with another being, true self-discovery, and the basic human needs of love and acceptance are universal.
What connected, and rang profoundly true for me with The Aliens is the sense of “belonging” we all share as a life motivator, and the mirroring themes of personal struggle and alienation we have all encountered at some point in our lives. The authenticity of self (the charge of feeling alive), and the impacting change that a small gesture or act of kindness can to do for another person speaks volumes and have a lasting impact – if we take the time to do it.
(Something reinforced during the awkward silences and in between the sometime uncomfortable pauses).
Humor and heartache, nervous laughter and inner pain, surprisingly The Aliens is play of optimism. Individually, and to varying degrees, the three characters are stunted by their ability to move forward in the world. Yet despite their trying circumstances and all that happens there still remains the possibility of hope. Annie Baker has created a gem of a gift for us to see the potential, and as an audience participant we are left with the motivation to create our own.
“. . .but they are
and I am
– Charles Bukowski, “The Aliens”
Running Time: Two hours with a 15 minutes intermission.
The Aliens plays through December 23, 2012, in the Milton Theatre at The Studio Theatre – 1501-14th Street, NW, in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call (202) 332-3300, or purchase them online.