Annie Baker’s contemporary plays, including Circle Mirror Transformation and Body Awareness, have been seen around town in recent years and have, for good reason, received an array of accolades from audiences and critics alike. Baker explores the ordinary situations that ordinary people in small town Vermont experience, which reveal truths about humanity, human relationships, and the process of communication.
The Aliens, now in production at Studio Theatre, deals with some of these same themes, but I felt that the ordinary people and situations highlighted in this play were almost too ordinary (yet despicable) and too mundane to compel audience members to care about them and what they represent. Perhaps it’s the point of the play that we learn more about people (who are in this case, mostly slackers by even the most liberal definition of the word) when they are simply “hanging out,” but the slow-paced action involving uninspired characters certainly doesn’t make for very interesting theatre even when the script is skillfully performed by three solid actors under the capable direction of Lila Neugebauer.
As The Aliens begins, we meet Jasper (Peter O’Connor) and KJ (Scot McKenzie). They seemingly have no careers to speak of although they are both interested in creative endeavors and at one time wanted to play music together (the band was, at one point, to be called “The Aliens”). Currently, they spend their days hanging out – and sometimes getting high – behind a small restaurant where high school student Evan (Brian Miskell) works. At first nerdy Evan is wary of the two men (who really aren’t permitted to hang out in this “staff only” area), but he slowly warms up to them and builds a friendship with them. When Jasper unexpectedly passes away after Evan returns from a summer camp, KJ and Evan are left to deal with the loss they’ve experienced and the need to move on with their lives.
As the men hang out, sometimes words are spoken, but many times they are not. In the silences, Baker reveals selected truths about each of them although KJ gets the fullest character development (and to be sure, it isn’t much). However, even when we learned things about the men, I found it difficult to care about any of them and their self-perpetuated situations. It could be my general disdain about 30-somethings who accomplish little with their lives and have, outside of several creative endeavors, have little desire to contribute to the greater good of society, or others who are fascinated with those individuals, but I found it excruciating to hear their banter (even if it was met with chuckles from my fellow audience members) and witness the many, many silences between the words spoken as they did, well, nothing. There is a barrier to audience engagement with the characters, which perhaps is Baker’s intention given that KJ and Jasper are largely detached from society. However, that’s not the problem. I don’t think any of the characters are deserving of any platform (in this case, Baker’s play), to speak, experience life (however empty), or share their feelings so the engagement opportunities with them would be pretty pointless for me.
Despite these considerable misgivings, I will say the three actors make the best out of the material they’ve been given and give solid and nuanced performances. The appropriate nonchalant and laidback acting choices fit their characters perfectly. One is particularly able to believe the friendships that exist between the men – a crucial element, indeed.
Several scenes allow each actor to have a standout moment, which mostly allowed me to forget my hatred for the characters for a brief minute or two thanks to the fine acting. O’Connor subtly reveals truths about Jasper as he reads a passage from a novel he’s writing to his friends. His skillful delivery of those words highlights the fact that there is, perhaps, more to Jasper than what we witness. McKenzie expertly handles a scene in which KJ opens up to Evan about his past. Although this sharing moment left me rolling my eyes due to the script (let’s just say the word “ladder” is repeated about 100 times), that response was not, in any way, related to McKenzie’s performance of the material, which is organic, natural, and heartfelt. Miskell also showcases his obvious acting talent when Evan finally learns of Jasper’s death; he more than hits the mark in portraying his character’s conflicted feelings at that moment.