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Theater Review: “The Aliens” at Studio Theatre

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

Scot McKenzie and Brian Miskell in The Aliens. Photograph by Scott Suchman

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.

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

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