Play by Annie Baker
Directed by: Shawn LaCount
Set, Cristina Todesco. Lights, Benjamin Williams. Costumes, Bobby Frederick Tilley II. Sound, Aaron Mack.
Presented by Company One at Calderwood Pavilion, Hall A, Boston Center for the Arts.
Through Nov. 20.
November 18 performance
Close the window, shut the door. Shut off the computer and everything else that’s connected to the power grid. Spend the next five minutes in complete silence.
Now you’ve been prepared for the first scene of “The Aliens,” in which KJ (Alex Pollock) stares blissfully into the sky, his face aglow as he ponders the beatific beauty of clouds coupling and separating in the July afternoon.
This is a weird play. It’s characters are weird, the setting next to a dumpster in back of a coffee shop is weird, the plot, such as it is, is weird. If you’re not weirded out by all this, you’re ready to enjoy a quirky, non-traditional coming-of-age play.
Two raggedy, unkempt, thirty-something losers, sorry there isn’t a more polite way to describe them, occupy the small, fenced-off area as their clubhouse. KJ is a University of Vermont dropout, derailed by a nervous breakdown. Jasper (Nael Nacer) is a high school dropout, sitting on a righteous anger he can hardly control. They see themselves as social outcasts and, to tell the truth, this solitary piece of turf, tucked away from civilization, is where they fit best and are safe from the company of the rest of us.
“The Aliens” is loaded with silences. It is non linear. It is steadfastly non-theatrical. During one of the eternally extended silences Baker has written into the play, I went through my to do list, remembered I had to get my parking ticket validated at intermission, watched the audience watching the silence, wondered whether I could ever maintain such a silence when sitting with a dear friend, and wondered why, if we were really in the back lot of the coffee shop, the silence was so pure.
No crows cawing, no chatter from inside, no trucks rattling down the road outside, no sound of breeze rustling the leaves. I found myself trying to breathe quieter. I became aware of all the chatter in my head. I felt like I could breathe naturally when dialogue restarted. And I wondered why Baker was screwing around with my head like this.
The appearance of Evan (Jacob Brandt) in scene two sets the play in motion. The nerdy, socially awkward, painfully self-conscious 17 year-old is a doppelganger of what KJ and Jasper must have been when they were teenagers. Here he is hauling out the trash and trying to tell the two vagabonds that his boss says they have to leave.
“Ham on Rye” author Charles Bukowski is KJ and Jasper’s patron saint. These guys imagine themselves carrying Bukowski’s flag of intense alienation as they travel bravely down a path the rest of us are too acculturated to find.
With Evan as the lone spectator, they pass the time rehashing their history, perhaps imagined, as punk rockers and general screw-ups. Their spontaneous enactment of their band incarnations, with its in-jokes, shared history, and zany lyrics, unshackles them briefly from their present circumstances and unleashes a childlike glee they may never experience again.
Jasper, in an emotional nose-dive, is writing a first-rate Henry Miller-esque manuscript detailing his relationship with a woman who has rejected him. KJ, is given to long stretches of staring in serenely into space, transported there by infusions of mushroom tea, which, like Linus’s blanket, is never far from his side. The casting for each role is excellent. The three actors breathe life into these three fragile characters on the fringe of society.
KJ and Jasper invite Evan to Fourth of July party to be held in their grotto behind the coffee shop. Evan, the only guest, brings brownies, sparklers, and peppermint schnapps - a perfect metaphorical offering from this boy on the uncertain road to manhood.
At times the whole thing feels like Seinfeld on acid. Much of the dialogue between KJ and Jasper is self-referential. These two guys have seen their share of losses, failures, and disappointments, which we hear about in the two-act, two hour and ten minute production. The back of the coffee shop in rural Shirley, Vermont is their foxhole - a refuge.
Over the course of two acts, in a series of small moments, one life is extinguished and one life is transformed.
Both Annie Baker’s plays I’ve seen this week, Body Awareness and The Aliens, dwell on the nature of how we connect with each other, perhaps how we need each other, and, dare I say it, how we express our love for each other.
Baker’s world of characters in Shirley, Vermont, as misfit or dysfunctional as they may be, have at their core a decency that transcends their own social status, draws them together and sees an inner beauty the rest of us cannot.
Note about the Shirley, VT plays by Annie Baker at the Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA:
Three Boston theater companies collaborated to produce the The Shirley, Vermont Plays: A Festival of 3 Plays By Annie Baker. The Huntington Theater Company (“Circle Mirror Transformation” ended November 14); Company One (“Aliens” through November 20); The SpeakEasy Stage Company (“Body Awareness” through November 20)