April 25, 2010

Totally Disarmed by "The Aliens"

So many big shows have been opening on Broadway this month in the mad dash before the season officially ends on Friday that lots of smaller ones have opened and closed off-Broadway without my getting a chance to even think about seeing them. But there was no chance that I was going to miss Annie Baker’s new play The Aliens, which opened at the tiny Rattlestick Playwrights Theater down in the Village last week.

This is the third of Baker's plays to be produced in the city in the last two years. I missed the first Body Awareness but the second, circle mirror transformation, a deceptively quiet comedy about an acting class at a community center in rural Vermont, was one of my favorite shows last year. It persuaded me (and a lot of other folks too) that its playwright, who is only 29, is an astonishingly gifted and mature writer and could be one of the most important voices in the American theater for years to come (click here to read a profile about her in The Village Voice).

The new play only confirms the earlier promise. It’s in the tradition of those Sam Shepard plays about sad and angry young men but Baker filters their disaffections through a more ruminative, feminine sensibility that makes this now-familiar story seem almost new.

The Aliens centers around a summer in the lives of three young men—two slackers who have dropped out of college, failed at keeping together a band and now simply hang around the back of a local cafĂ© and the callow high school student who works at the place and falls in with them.  The older guys smoke dope, fantasize about the songs and novels that will make them famous and attempt to mentor the younger one. The dialogue is often funny but the play seems, at first, like a slice of somewhat dull life. In fact, about a dozen people left at intermission.

Don't make that mistake if you go, and you should. For an event in the second act brings new meaning to the ramblings in the first and an unexpected poignancy to the entire piece.  The director Sam Gold, who also collaborated with Baker on circle mirror transformation, works with a deft subtlety that matches hers.  His production—from Andrew Lieberman’s realistic set and Bobby Tilley’s witty costumes (check out the slogans on the T shirts) to the mood-perfect lighting by Tyler Miocoleau and evocative sound design by Bart Fasbender—is so natural that you feel at times as though you’re eavesdropping on real life.

That may also be because the three actors embody their characters so fully. Erin Gann is all jitters and intensity as Jasper, the slacker who idolizes the blue-collar writer Charles Bukowski.  Dane Dehaan is achingly believable as the gawky teen Evan.  (Deehaan’s bio says he will be one of the patients on Season Three of HBO’s great series “In Treatment,” which is just one more reason to Tivo that show when it returns later this year.) 

And Michael Chernus, who happens to be Baker’s real-life boyfriend, makes the spacey KJ the emotional heart and soul of the play. He has a bravura moment that, like much of circle mirror transformation, is rooted in the acting exercises that actors play to develop their craft.  Their challenge is to make those moments seem real.  Chernus made his heartbreakingly so.

The Aliens is running through May 23.  Try not to miss it.  As for me, I don't intend to miss anything Baker does from now on.


Aaron Riccio said...

I'm so glad you liked it. I can't figure out why people would leave.

jan@broadwayandme said...

Hey Aaron, thanks for commenting. I suspect the folks who left were expecting a play just like "circle mirror transformation" and the characters in this show are a bit harder to like than the "circle" gang. Still, it's their loss that they left.