THE ALIENS – Chester Theatre Company
With a director less sensitive than Daniel Elihu Kramer and a cast less skilled, Annie Baker’s "The Aliens" would not be the pitch perfect, impeccably rhythmed production it is on the town hall stage at Chester Theatre Company. Baker, a darling of Off-Broadway critics (“The Aliens" received the Obie in 2010) and winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for “The Flick”, eschews obvious A to B to C plotting. Her narratives can be slender; her works often transact more like character studies.
Indeed, “The Aliens” is driven by character, not plot. KJ and Jasper, both single thirty-somethings, hang out in an alley behind a coffee shop in a small town of Vermont. Both are fans of The Beats (KJ are the initials backwards for Jack Kerouac). Their plans for a rock band which they called The Aliens after a Henry Miller poem never went anywhere. KJ, a college dropout and unperformed songwriter sings in monotone bizarre lyrics that pop into his head. Jasper, who never finished high school, reads from his unfinished novel. They complain about past girlfriends. Substance abuse and addiction figure in the past. In their mutual loneliness, they’re modern day Estragon and Vladimir: With their damaged psyches, legatees of average American guys created by Shepard or Rabe.
Into their alienated world (yes the play’s title literally describes KJ and Jasper) enters Evan, a high school student and part-time employee of the coffee shop. KJ and Jasper decide to “teach him everything (they) know.” KJ and Jasper’s interest in Evan seems motivated by their need to escape from their alienated state. Evan, too, is a loner. With juvenile infatuation, he sees KJ and Jasper as exemplars of cool, an escape, too, from the drab everyday of his school and home life.
The play progresses on subtly revealed aspects about each character, and carefully calibrated pacing and movement. Silences loom large in Baker’s script, making a Pinter pause seem no more than an eye blink. Director Kramer negotiates Baker brilliantly, working with actors with success at Chester before. Joel Ripka (last year “Every Brilliant Thing” and recently “White Rabbit Red Rabbit”) casts a long drug shadow over even the minutest movement of KJ. James Barry (“Sister Play” two summers back) is Jasper, who, with a thin, happy-go-lucky façade, is drowning in anger inside. Paul Pontrelli (last year’s “I and You”) is a perfectly naïve and nerdy Evan.
A single, cathartic event occurs In “The Aliens”, albeit, in typical Baker fashion, untheatrically. Henry Miller, a hero to KJ and Jasper, observed about addiction: “The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is human connection.” The final scene of this fine production dramatizes Miller’s view quietly but profoundly.