Annie Baker’s The Aliens is a deceptively complex drama, and it deserves a complex response. This story of two 30ish misfits and the high school student they befriend is constructed of unfinished sentences, unarticulated ideas and indirections. It asks us to sympathize with its characters not because of the goodness of their intentions, but because of their inability to hold to any intention, good, bad or mixed. I don’t think it’s going too far to say that playwright Baker even wants us to love Jasper, KJ, and Evan, to find them not just pitiable but beautiful, opalescent wildflowers all the more splendid in that they grow beside a dumpster. Most of all, we’re supposed to feel their pain, the agony of persons who lack the emotional and intellectual resources with which to navigate the wild world. We’re probably supposed to find them luminous.
Well, I kind of don’t. I kind of feel manipulated by playwright Baker, forced to admire characters she’s patently superior to (after all, she wrote their ironic lines), and reminded a little too often of those 1950s movies in which method actors like Marlon Brando and James Dean strove mightily to get their agonized thoughts out of their heads, and whose stammering failure was the badge of their glory. I want to know what Baker’s characters are like when they’re not sharing the backlot of a rundown coffee shop in Vermont, what disastrous impact they’re having on their families, their lovers, the people they work with (if they ever get around to working). I think Baker mostly avoids examining the moral effects of this much vacuity, and I feel that the play crosses the line, finally, from poignancy into mawkishness.
Yet some of the writing is brilliant. And I think Baker may turn out to be a great American playwright.
There’s not much of a plot. Jasper and KJ are friends who claim they’ve been told by a certain Rahna that it’s okay for them to hang out behind the coffee shop every day. They were once members of a band whose many names included “The Aliens,” but right now what they do is ingest psilocybin mushrooms, sing original songs (much too literate for this combo) or reflect on bad relationships. Some days KJ balances an iced coffee on his forehead; some days Jasper reads from the novel he’ll never finish (a book so well-written that it’s hard to believe he had anything to do with it). They meet Evan, who’s just started working at the coffee shop, and who informs them that they’ll have to leave their favorite preserve. They ignore him and eventually welcome him into their circle. Now there’s three onstage characters who can’t very well express themselves, and when they celebrate July 4th together, the best they can manage is one lonely sparkler. The days pass, something momentous happens, and our heroes struggle to absorb it. The play ends on an upbeat note. Or is that ironic, too?
Derrick Phillips is KJ, and offers a wonderful performance. In his knit cap and mismatched clothes (designed by Frank Chavez), he has the stoned and haunted look of a lost young man who’s just a few years from being homeless. As his friend Jasper, Chris Jackson is persuasively incapable of coping with the real universe. With his long hair and guitar (he looks surprisingly like the young James Taylor at times), he’s obviously heading down the same dead end as his best buddy. There’s a little more going on for Evan, played solidly by Franco Colon as a naif still learning about girls and how to smoke a cigarette. All three are nicely directed by David M. Jenkins, and Chavez’s set, from its weather-worn fence to its picnic table, is an out-and-out winner. Jo Averill-Snell designed the fine lighting.
So why do I say that Baker may turn out to be a great playwright (besides the fact that I’m aware of her much better drama The Flick)? Because The Aliens is an intrepid gamble that breaks a lot of rules, challenges its audience’s patience, and occasionally reaches heights unattempted by lesser writers. A scene in which KJ briefly “heals” Evan is quietly spectacular. A scene in which KJ endlessly repeats a single word pierces the heart. Hopelessness and anomie may be modernist clichés, but Baker shows they still have legs, and produces some variations that we haven’t already witnessed. This woman has talent, and when she finally moves on from fashionable despair, she may have something truly important to tell us.
It’s not quite there in The Aliens. She’s still just stretching her muscles here.
But something excellent is coming.
Three-and-a-half of five stars.
Stageworks,1120 E. Kennedy Blvd., Tampa.
Through Feb. 26: Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.