Annie Baker’s The Aliens is set on and around the Fourth of July – and the real fireworks were exploding at an arts camp outside Shirley, Vt., where 17-year-old Evan settled his penis into a willing young woman’s vagina for the very first time. He reported that the experience was OK, but he also thought that 17 is actually kind of late to be figuring out what certain body parts are for. He’s wrong about that, of course, but he eventually directs his concern at one of two guys who aren’t supposed to have a clue.
So evolves a story point in ion theatre company’s regional-premiere dramedy, wherein form meticulously follows function. Baker takes a philosophical, kindly look at the state of modern Americana through the eyes of two druggy wanderers and the beanpole they hook up with by chance – and the fact that there’s not much plot here doesn’t really matter. The play busies itself with three excellent character studies, each man acutely aware of the world’s madness, with Baker patiently throwing the two survivors a bone of solace in the end.
Amid her temperate sympathies for lost souls, Baker is Sam Shepard lite. Many of her works even feature the same type geographical reference (her resplendent native Northeast versus the roily Shepard’s desert Southwest), and she leaves directors a ton of subtext to work with. Add Glenn Paris and Claudio Raygoza’s directorial sanction, and suddenly, The Aliens isn’t so alien at all.
KJ and Jasper are Beavis and Butthead once removed, two thirtyish itinerants who used to be in a suckoid rock band called The Aliens. These days, they routinely light outside a Shirley coffee shop to play guitar, talk about poetry, diss exes and otherwise solve the world’s problems. College washout KJ is the more cerebral, jacking his coffee with ‘shrooms and spouting philosophical constructs as if he unearthed them himself (“If p, then q!”); hidebound Jasper, who never finished high school, is writing a bowel movement of a novel he thinks rivals the best work of German-born beat writer Charles Bukowski, his idol.
Hope springs eternal, Baker seems to say, even more so amid the sources’ hidden similarities.
The cool thing about this pair is that, beneath their potty exteriors, they’re not such bad guys. It’s a cinch they’ll never reach anything remotely close to their potential (especially Jasper, and you’ll see why when you go), but Baker pegs them as pussycats inside, with all the feline mystery that fires their considerable intelligence. They may talk snidely about Jews and women and stuff, but they render their words almost in jest more than as a matter of record. As for Evan, he’s as virginal as it gets, but his almost sweet naïvete is a source of reassurance to these well-meaning guys. Hope springs eternal, Baker seems to say, even more so amid the sources’ hidden similarities.
Baker sets the pace at an extremely slow linger, designed to mirror the many-flavored angles from which this trio reflects its worldviews. Paris and Raygoza take the hint, carefully using the stage as a character-building tool while their cast takes its sweet old time with the questions the play poses. Just when you think the deliberate pace should introduce another layer of acting style, Paris and Raygoza pick it up, their take on nuance in direct proportion to Baker’s.
Meanwhile, Brian Butler’s KJ and Reed Willard’s Jasper are clearly one another’s foils – but Baker and the directors color this quality with masterful, vaguely playful subtlety, inviting our curiosity about not only the men but also the nature of their relationship. Evan, who says “Cool” a lot, is a wholesale pleaser and wants everybody to be OK, but his shyness is downright debilitating to that end, and Tyler Oakley draws a solid bead accordingly.
Raygoza’s set design might ring just a tad too tidy for some of the scenes, but the tech overall reflects Baker’s hip simpatico with her peeps (dig costumer Mary Summerday’s novelty T-shirt in act 2!). ion’s BLK BOX space seats only 49, but each tech effort there is quick to take that into account. The smaller the venue, the bigger the ideas.
The Aliens might have found better footing as a one-act; the only palpable conflict between Evan and the others involves Jasper and KJ’s routine trespass onto the coffee house grounds, and that’s hardly enough to sustain two acts. Still, this is a sympathetic illustration of a corner of the world at some of its loneliest moments, and ion (which in 2011 introduced San Diego audiences to Baker, an NYU playwriting instructor and Pulitzer winner) is among the locally preeminent advocates for its voice. Very, very good show.
This review is based on the media opening of Nov. 21. The Aliens runs through Dec. 12 at BLK BOX @ 6th & Penn, 3704 Sixth Ave. in Hillcrest. $9-$40. 619-600-5020, iontheatre.com.