Reviewed for Show Business Weekly
Imagine you’re a shy 17-year-old boy in Vermont, waiting for your senior year to start, but really just waiting — waiting for something, anything, to happen. One day, at your new summer job, you run into a loiterer named Jasper and his friend KJ. You mumble something about the management’s rules, but Jasper just offers you a cigarette, so calmly and coolly ignoring you that it seems like a mark of respect. “You gotta’ read Bukowski,” he says, and then you realize he’s actually paying attention to you. “He cuts through all the bullshit.”
Annie Baker cuts through the bullshit, too. Her sweet and simple plays forgo plot in favor of intimate character studies, taking pleasure in small hopes and dreams. Her latest, The Aliens, centers on Jasper (Erin Gann), as he channels the depression resulting from his latest failed relationship into his novel. (“She would sleep with her head pressed so hard against his chest that he’d wake up with bruises.”) The play also follows the Dude-like KJ (Michael Chernus), who attempts to define his own depression with mathematical logic, but settles instead for the steadier diet of ‘shrooms and Zen philosophy: “The state of having just lost something is like the most enlightened state in the world.” Between these two is Evan (Dane DeHann), a shy boy hoping to find a purpose in their encouraging presence.
Baker is joined, once again, by the clear-eyed director Sam Gold (Circle Mirror Transformation), and their collaboration is mundanely profound, finding the poetry of realism by getting to the root of the text. (This is reflected in Jasper’s literary style and KJ’s floundering attempts to explain how something is explained.) KJ breaks down, repeating a single word for three minutes, but the word is just a means of communicating something deeper, richer. Likewise, when Evan sings “If I Had a Hammer,” it ceases to be a stupid song: Instead, his tone tells the story, building from embarrassment to sweet sorrow before learning to let go by the final verse.
It’s hard to watch The Aliens without falling for its characters, without getting sucked in to its so-simple world — and it’s easy to do so, with no divide between the actors and their more-than-believable characters. It’s difficult to describe Baker’s language with mere quotes: It’s just everyday dialogue. Moreover, it’s impossible not to rave about this show, whose world is simple only in lurid comparison to the Technicolor one seen on “reality” TV. Baker’s language is normal, yes, but it is riveting in its openness; her characters remind us that the “little frictions” are the ones that are hardest to bear, because they cannot be prepared for.