I didn't know Annie Baker's work before I saw Peter Gill's prodction of THE ALIENS at the Bush, but her recent work has won major awards and CIRCLE, MIRROR, TRANSFORMATION has been one of the most celebrated new American plays of the past few years. THE ALIENS was produced Off-Broadway last year and won the Obie for Best New American Play. The tiny Bush theatre was the perfect place to see this touching character study.
It is difficult to describe this play in a way that explains its excellence. The situation is not unfamiliar in American drama and film. Two thirty-something slackers hang out behind a coffee shop in a small town in Vermont. Jasper (MacKenzie Crook) is trying to write a novel that sounds like a lot of post Kerouac attempts at autobiographical fiction; dreadlocked KJ (Ralf Little), who lives with his new age mother, remembers the days when they had a band (their songs are delightfully awful). Jasper, who dropped out of high school after his mother's death, has just lost a girlfriend and barely hides his depression. KJ had a mental breakdown in college and is dependent on medication and self-medication to hold onto his sanity. These two men seem to be each other's only friends. Enter seventeen-year-old Evan, who works in the coffee shop. He has a brief, intense bond with these men. Like them, he is friendless.
Nothing much happens on the surface of THE ALIENS. The three characters have a Fourth of July party together. After this, there are tragedies that break up the trio. Jasper dies, leaving R.J. and Evan despondent. Evan's boss says R.J. can no longer hang out behind the coffee shop. R.J. gives Evan Jasper's guitar as a farewell present. All this sounds trite, but the experience of this play is deeply moving. Baker loves silences and a great deal of the relationship between these men is unspoken. She subtly gives us enough exposition to understand why these men are so wounded, but nothing is underlined -- everything seems to emerge naturally. She lets simple moments take their time. At the end, Evan picks up Jasper's guitar and sings "If I Had a Hammer" -- all of it. It's painful at first, but we watch Evan gain his voice and confidence as he sings and plays. "You're gonna go far," K.J. exclaims at the end of the song, and we feel that Evan might. This will be a small, important chapter in his life.
Baker's CIRCLE, MIRROR, TRANSFORMATION was a love song to acting. THE ALIENS shows how much she trusts her actors to find the depth in simple moments. Under the masterful direction of Peter Gill, this cast gave fine, detailed performances. All three actors are familiar from television and other stage appearances, but even in this small space one forgets the actors and concentrates on the characters. Physically Crook and Little are a good duo. Blonde, gaunt Crook looks like he's wasting away; Little is larger, dark haired, with an expressive face. Ollie Alexander captures Evan's sweetness and neediness.
THE ALIENS by Annie Baker. Directed by Peter Gill. Bush Theatre, October 7, 2010