Fort Worth — Three men in the scruffy outback of a Vermont coffee house watch Fourth of July fireworks explode in the distance. The youngest of them looks up and over our heads toward the lights. Slowly, his face takes on a sheen of pure joy. Behind him another man, not quite so young, dances around and around in the yard, waving a lit sparkler that trails a shower of stars.
The moment glows—not just on the stage, but in the audience.
And we’re left to wonder: just how does Stage West’s production of Annie Baker’s The Aliens—gentle and bittersweet, at times exasperating—get us here? In a play that deals as much in silence as speech, with characters who reveal themselves only in bits and pieces, how do we reach this brief moment of communion—feeling so entirely happy that they are happy?
Because Baker’s Obie-award-winning Aliens (she won the 2014 Pulitzer for her play The Flick) is an altogether oblique and sideways slide into un-theatrical theater. No big speeches here, and not much forward-moving plot. The play’s dramatic action mostly takes place offstage, not on. And what’s left onstage is something like—but not the same as—real life, with characters who give us more hints than facts, who make us laugh and drive us wild precisely because they feel like people, not creations. They are too much like someone we’ve known, or perhaps (God help us) even loved. (Baker, along with playwright Young Jean Lee, whose Straight White Men just closed at Second Thought Theatre, is another student of influential post-modernist playwright Mac Wellman of Brooklyn College.)
Yet there is plenty here to see, hear and ponder—if you’re willing to let less be more.
Thirty-ish KJ (Jake Buchanan) and Jasper (Joey Folsom) spend most of their days by the back porch of this small-town coffee house, avoiding the folkie “Ani DiFranco shit” going on inside. Friends for years, they had a band of their own once, but could never settle on a name. (For nano-seconds they were called “The Aliens”—the title of a poem by Jasper’s favorite writer, Charles Bukowski.) Jasper smokes, and broods over a recent breakup. KJ stretches the length of an old picnic table, lazily scratching a southerly itch and sipping “shroom” tea.
Enter Evan (Parker Gray), a shy teen working part-time at the coffee house—and under orders to run them off. Instead, of course, he’s pulled into their random orbit. As they let Evan into their lives, we listen in. KJ thinks Jasper’s a genius—he’s writing a novel!—and Jasper is big-brotherly to KJ, who (though nothing’s spelled out) seems to have a problem with alcohol and “freaking out.” KJ has a New Age mom both guys love, and Jasper wants Evan (and everyone) to read Bukowski, who “cuts through the bullshit.” That looks like the poet himself on the brick wall of the coffee house, painted by set designer N. Ryan McBride—the only spot of color in a backyard set filled with dust-covered throwaways: used-up trash cans, barrels and ironwork, aging lawn chairs and broken fencing (props by Lynn Lovett, and quietly vibrant lighting and sound picks from Bryan Stevenson and John M. Flores).
Director Dana Schultes wisely lets these small personal revelations unroll in their own time, between long, long pauses that feel alternately comfortable and awkward. (It’s probably no accident that one of KJ’s favorite fancy words is “ellipsis”—the dotted punctuation mark of a conversation that trails off into silence.) The Aliens is a play that needs to be left alone to find its way—or at least, to look as if it’s been left alone (a neat directorial trick) to rise or fall on just how “real” these three actors can make their lightly-sketched characters become for us.
Fortunately, Stage West has a fresh, just-right cast, two of them (Folsom and Gray) making a debut with the company (Folsom also played Jasper in 2013 for Upstart Productions). Buchanan’s KJ (he and Folsom will rotate the two leading roles during the run of the play) has an appealing elfin charm; he moves through his role like an escapee from a summer run of Hair. “Have fun at band camp!” he calls after Evan, giving him a sidelong glance and grin. There isn’t anything quick or straight-edged about KJ: he leans, lounges, and curls in on himself; even his talk feels loopy and circling. If he isn’t part of a conversation, he’s apt to start dancing to his own beat in the background. Is this “hangout” the only place in the world he feels comfortable? It seems to be so. (Garret Storms’ quirky costumes—KJ’s Roman sandals and ripped jeans, for instance—layer our sense of each character.)
“I’m a living piece of trailer trash,” says Folsom’s Jasper in his cheerfully blunt way. We don’t know much about his past except that he left behind the town (and the family?) of his childhood. He bosses and looks out for KJ, and is primed to do the same for Evan. Jasper, we sense, is more aware of time (and life) a-wasting. He reads an excerpt from his novel to KJ and Evan that includes an image of God checking his watch and asking the main character: “When are you going to stop f—king around?” Folsom brings vivid energy—and a tinge of desperation—to the role; when Jasper talks, we listen hard.
Gray, all long limbs and wide eyes, plays the “kid” who grows up—more than a little—inside this oddly nurturing little circle. It takes so little to befriend the amusingly smart-but-awkward Evan—and his instant pleasure tells us all we need to know about how bleak his high school life must be. Neither KJ nor Jasper does much that we’d call “mentoring.” But somehow, Evan’s sense that they’re with him (“Don’t think!” cries KJ, urging him on) makes him braver, lets him take leaps he might not have tried before.
Do Jasper and KJ see their younger selves in Evan? Probably, though Evan’s future seems more hopeful than theirs ever was. But they’re pleased to have a new ear for their stories, teasing and advice—and their offbeat songs, of course. The three are tied together by music: KJ and Jasper used to write their own songs for the band; Evan plays too—and teaches music at the summer camp.
There’s something very American about Baker’s story of young men (why is it always young men?) who feel like “aliens” in their own land; who struggle, and often stop struggling, to find their place or purpose, though they may have plenty of gifts to give. It’s a story that touches on the challenge of growing up in a society lacking in signposts or markers or rites of passage—that leaves you on your own to sort out the risks worth taking from the risks that could end you.
If you grow up, it’s a bloody miracle and a cause for rejoicing. In a play that never gets out of one drab backyard—maybe that’s the spark of hope we’re left with.