So called “Laureate of American lowlife” Charles Bukowski’s nostalgic poem “Two Toughs” revolves around a fleeting, golden moment when the sad sack narrator for once had the world at his feet. Bukowski’s world of flickering hope and quiet desperation gets a fitting tribute in The Aliens, Annie Baker’s challenging portrait of unexpected friendship, addiction, and loss, now playing at Studio Theatre.
The play opens on a dingy back alleyway behind a Vermont coffee shop, appointed with remarkable detail by set designer Daniel Conway. Two slackers, KJ and Jasper, stare silently out at the audience from their weathered picnic table perch. And stare. And stare. And stare. After a few minutes of uncomfortable silence, the two scruffy figures break into halting conversation about mundane matters of failed relationships and weather, as well as quirky songs and philosophy.
As laid-back KJ and the more tightly wound Jasper, Scot McKenzie and Peter O’Connor display the easy rapport of longtime friends. KJ drinks psychedelic mushroom tea, sings about mathematical theories and Buddhist principles, while Jasper rattles off phrases from Bukowski poems and his pending novel. The two dropouts pontificate, speculate, and ramble, and then suddenly go silent, locking the audience with their piercing gazes. At times they seem like understated geniuses, and at others they come off as self indulgent Peter Pans, living among the wreckage of failed promise.
The duo’s hazy bubble pops with the arrival of awkward coffee shop worker Evan Shelmerdine. Imbued with a painful shyness by Brian Miskell, Evan is everything the older “dharma bums” are not: tightly wound, painfully rule-conscious, and lacking in self-confidence. He practically jumps at his own shadow. His arrival has a humanizing effect on the older duo, turning them into back alley gurus to their young charge. Through several awkward interactions, KJ and Jasper slowly bring Evan out of his shell, adopting him as a sort of protégé in their cult of Bukowski and eastern mysticism.
Baker’s group of castoffs mimics Bukowski’s lineup of the downtrodden and unwanted, while eschewing his normally bleak outlook in favor of unexpected warmth and hope.
Even after Evan initially disrupts the sleepy rhythm, the show remains locked into a rhythm of intermittent exchanges punctuated by interminable pauses, challenging the audience to be patient and consider the silence as part of the play, rather than a mistake. Baker herself dictated that any production be “30 to 50 percent silence”, and the show achieves a remarkable realism through this hard-line stance.
Closes December 23, 2012
Studio Theatre’s Milton Theatre
1501 14th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20005
2 hours with 1 intermission
Tickets: $35 – $72
Tuesdays thru Sundays
The second act offers a dark counter to the easy, tripped out vibe of the first. The audience discovers that beneath their laid-back, “Heeeey man” veneer, the back alley swamis are very flawed and very human. The long gaps in dialogue have by this point allowed the audience to fill in the gaps in KJ and Jasper’s back stories and collective directions, and so it is a startling moment indeed when a shocking twist upends the happy haze of daydreams, folk jams, fireworks, and brownies. McKenzie wows with his layered portrayal of KJ’s quick downward spiral from one side of intermission to the other.
Director Lila Neugebauer uses rigorously economized language and choreographed physicality to squeeze worlds of emotion into a very small space. She has certainly taken Baker’s plea for quiet seriously. Occasionally, the silence crosses a line into the realm of self-indulgence, almost daring the audience to get up and walk out, despite the quality acting and production values.
Ultimately, The Aliens offers a funny and genuinely stirring meditation on life’s unexpected twists and turns, and with some pacing tweaks, it has the potential to be sublime.
The Aliens by Annie Baker . Directed by Lila Neugebauer . Starring: Scot McKenzie (KJ), Brian Miskell (Evan), and Peter O’Connor (Jasper) . Lila Neugebauer (Director), Dan Conway (Set Design), Matthew Richards (Lighting Design), Meghan Raham (Costume Design), Stowe Nelson (Sound Design), Lauren Halvorsen (Dramaturgy) . Produced by Studio Theatre . Reviewed by Ben Demers
Doug Rule . MetroWeekly
Megan Kuhn . Baltimore Post-Examiner
Peter Marks . Washington Post
Roger Catlin . MDTheatreGuide
Chris Klimek . City Paper
Sydney Chanele-Dawkins . DCMetroTheaterArts
Gary Tischler . Georgetowner