The silence is deafening. And uncomfortable...and unsettling. Anticipation builds, wanes, then builds again. But, for what? What’s going on?
Those are the feelings in the opening scene of Annie Baker’s meditative yet entertaining play, The Aliens, playing at Upstart Productions in the Margo Jones Theatre at the Magnolia Lounge in Fair Park.
KJ (Tim Maher) and Jasper (Joey Folsom) sit quietly in the small yard behind a coffee shop. The mood is unmistakably contemplative as KJ lays face up on a picnic table staring into the sky and Jasper sits hunched over in a chair, obsessively drawing on his cigarette, staring a million miles in front of him. Their stillness betrays their place in the world. Directionless.
Jasper is saddened by a recent breakup, and while that’s made out to be a major event, it quickly becomes clear that this event serves merely as a microcosm of his life. He’s constantly unsure of everything, except of course the writings of Charles Bukowski, and of his own writing inspired by that.
KJ carries less immediate baggage, but the implication that some mental problems caused him to drop out of college paint a picture of a young man who truly wants something more, but is unable to attain it due to circumstances beyond his control. Both feel alienated from the mainstream world.
And so it makes sense that the introduction of something seemingly innocuous, the new straight-laced coffee shop employee Evan (Justin Duncan), would set off a series of events that would spur great changes in the three young men.
Baker’s script is, among other superlatives, fearless, especially where pace is concerned. For there is no rush detected from any of the three characters, and each of them have their own reasons for their methodically measured progression. It’d be easy to paint Jasper and KJ as predictable slackers; the kind of guys who came of age in the ‘90s and are now unsure of where they fit in the grand scheme of society. There are plenty of stories about that. But Baker eschews the stereotype by imbuing them with attributes contradictory to their archetype.
Jasper is an aspiring author. He writes constantly, and his prose is actually quite astute, thereby smashing any assumed laziness. And KJ exhibits an infectious optimism on anyone he comes across, despite every reason to be down on life. And these traits have the effect of making the men not just likable, but on some level, relatable and engaging.
And this is exactly what attracts Evan into their world. Evan just oozes repression. From his tucked-in button-down plaid shirt to his avoidance of eye contact and timid voice, this is a kid—17 years old compared to the other two being around 30—who is clearly henpecked nearly to the brink. So, though he at first is tasked with trying to shoo the men off the yard, he soon finds himself willingly befriended, causing the proverbial flower to blossom.
Baker’s talent is that she gives these characters distinction, with their own collection of idiosyncrasies that separate them, and yet they’re clearly bound together by a joint undercurrent, adrift. This connection serves as an enticing glue for following their development, even as it takes them to sometimes tragic ends.
Except that it doesn’t really end. There isn’t a definitive ending. It just ends, which itself, is just more indication of the aimless course of the characters’ narratives. There is no traditional beginning, middle, and end for them, with one major exception. There’s just the journey.
And to pull it off, a talented cast is required. It’d be all too easy to rush the action, to not hold on to the pauses and contemplation. To cut corners. So credit director David Denson’s talented cast for not just properly executing the sometimes sludgy pace, but wholeheartedly embracing it. For even when they’re quiet and immobile, there’s (almost) no mystery as to what is going through their heads. Folsom’s Jasper searches for meaning in another broken relationship, piecing together the scraps of loss into beautiful prose. KJ, perhaps given the most difficult role, stares off into space, a lot. And yet, that very conscious process of trying to hold it all together with a smile on his face is apparent and elicits of combination of hopeful optimism and heartbreak.
Evan is the catalyst in more than just being the character who kickstarts the initial action. He’s essentially a young version of Jasper and KJ. Therefore, in addition to telling his own story, his character serves as a reference point for the other two. Sort of a Point A to Point B progression. And his growth as a character throughout the play is a testament to the subtle touch Duncan brings to the role.
And through it all, of course, is the soul of an admired writer. By attaching Bukowski so intimately to the play, both by referencing his writing, and designing the characters and situations after Bukowski’s outsider ways, it’s an audacious undertaking. Bukowski may have been the voice of lost people like Jasper and KJ, but to overtly cite the man within the text as a major inspiration automatically sets up a comparison between the two, fair or not. In her own way, Baker succeeds. The dialogue, Jasper’s writing, and even the songs sung from their defunct, multi-named band are all reminiscent of the simple, stark language of its motivation.
The reason it works is that Bukowski’s writing, though now decades old, is still incredibly poignant. And not directly because of the ’90s kids attachment to their own grungy, slacker mantra. It works because the more things change, the more they stay the same. Bukowski’s writing is still applicable to today’s world, and Baker’s script is a testament to that. And Denson and his cast have found a companion in the text that they, in turn, give a deafening, yet ultimately unheard, voice to.