Theater Review: “The Aliens” at Studio Theatre

Annie Baker’s Vermont-based play is a love letter to artistic inertia.

By: Sophie Gilbert

Playwright Annie Baker once told the Brooklyn Rail how older audiences responded to her play Circle Mirror Transformation: “They hated it so much, and they were talking about how much they hated it while it was happening. . . . I was cowering in the back row the whole time, humiliated but also thrilled.”

Baker wasn’t at Sunday afternoon’s press performance of The Aliens, currently playing at Studio Theatre, but if she had been she would have heard an elderly woman in the front row declare audibly during a silent scene that the show was like “watching paint dry.” Baker’s form of dramatic, painfully familiar realism is certainly not for everyone. But in an age of chronic overstimulation, her lengthy silences and commitment to characters who don’t do much at all can feel almost revelatory.

In The Aliens, the third play in Baker’s Vermont-based series (following Circle Mirror Transformation and Body Awareness), two aimless townies, KJ (Scot McKenzie) and Jasper (Peter O’Connor), hang out at the back of what seems to be a college-town coffeehouse. And that’s pretty much it. The protracted silences between their esoteric, sparse conversations are as realistic as Daniel Conway’s set, in which weeds and leaves clutter the tarmac and the only way to access the space is by climbing over a wire fence. The time of day is only illustrated via Matthew Richards’s excellent lighting, and the only sounds are birdsong and the hard, jagged song fragments that punctuate scenes, played ear-shatteringly loud (possibly to wake up the audience members for whom the quiet has been a little too much).

Jasper and KJ are those characters everyone knows from growing up—the ones who straddle the fine line between free-spirited, psilocybin-ingesting artist and homeless person. Their abundant facial hair is unkempt, their clothing positively an afterthought. KJ sings random, stream-of-consciousness compositions about triple-dimension superstars; Jasper chain-smokes (the smell is cloying and cough-inducing in the tiny theater) and talks with palpably raw hurt about his ex-girlfriend, who’s now dating a guy named Sprocket who makes his own pants. The play’s title, incidentally, comes from one of the many names of Jasper and KJ’s band (Hieronymous Blast, Joseph Josef, and the Dharma Experience were some other options).

Their routine reverie is interrupted by Evan (Brian Miskell), a high school student working in the cafe over the summer who first nervously tells them they shouldn’t be sitting there but soon becomes fascinated by the pair, with their novels, their Charles Bukowski poems, and their songs about suicidal frogmen. Both Miskell and O’Connor played the same roles in the SF Playhouse production of the show earlier this year, so the roles seem almost like an afterthought in how naturally they inhabit them. Jasper is fierce but inspired; on edge but more in control than Evan, whose awkward shyness sparks a rigid contrast to the unselfconsciousness of the two friends.

McKenzie is mesmerizing as KJ, with all the innocuous potential of a smothered stick of dynamite. His connection to reality is less tangible than Jasper’s, but his mellow, bleary-eyed presence is haunting. These are characters who feel underwhelming at first but who have an ability to burrow into your head and emerge days later. Combined with Baker’s gift for language and the actors’ comic potential, it makes for unlikely drama onstage.

Director Lila Neugebauer does a good job making the characters feel oh-so-familiar, and the jolting musical interludes help undermine the first half’s decidedly languorous pace. But some of the silences in the first half are a little too long, alienating the audience and making the action drag. Sunday’s production clocked in at almost 20 minutes over its allotted running time of two hours, which suggests the actors could pick up the pace a bit without losing too much of the realism in the process. Nevertheless, The Aliens is sometimes-fascinating theater drawn from the most unlikely origins. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, as Baker herself attests, but if you’ve ever listened to music late at night in a haze of smoke and cheap liquor, you’ll find something in it to cherish.

The Aliens is at Studio Theatre through December 23. Running time is about two hours and 15 minutes, including one intermission. Tickets ($39 to $72) are available via Studio Theatre’s website.