Theatre  closes its season with another successful production of a relevant and recent award-winning play. Annie Baker’s “The Aliens” (2010 Obie Award for best new American play) is a love letter to the fragility of chosen families and the gentle geniuses our fast-paced society quietly leaves behind. Delicately understated performances by the three actors and careful direction by co-artistic director Mike Brooks make this hushed beauty an unlikely exclamation point on the end of the new company’s second season.
KJ (Brandon Cox) and Jasper (Scott Anthony) are genuine misfits, existing on the fringes of their small Vermont town, barely holding onto life by holding onto each other. They gather every day on the abandoned outdoor staff lounge behind the neighborhood coffee shop to smoke, talk about math and women, take mushrooms and pass the time. Baker’s scenes tend to end on a moment of silence rather than a line or a decisive action, and in between there are many quiet elliptical moments where the actors are allowed to fidget, read or stare off into space―just like real humans.
The film world calls this particular brand of realism “mumblecore,” a fidelity to how younger people really talk and move, as opposed to the heightened theatrical sense of dialog and action one expects on stage or screen. But Baker’s silences offer more than a dogged authenticity. They create a tension of their own―is what’s coming next a break-through or a breakdown?―that is as theatrical as any rapid-fire dialog. Each silence is a chance for the actors to color the stage. Some extended pauses are awkward, others are peaceful.
Many of Brooks’ recent directing projects have been louder, faster, talkier (Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s “Hunter Gatherers” and “boom,” John Cameron Mitchell’s “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”), but “The Aliens” shows Brooks knows how to pace a show that almost resists pacing―paradoxically, the long pauses never impede the play’s deliberate unfolding.
We learn over the course of the play that KJ’s health is fragile and that Jasper’s an autodidact with a keen sense of his own outsider status. But they are a family, these two, taking care of each other with an unabashed brotherly love that betrays no tired traits of the competitive, hyper-masculine bromance. They make music together, seemingly only for each other. Cox and Anthony have such gentle chemistry, and they each imbue their characters with a tender sense of humanity, in every philosophical question and nervous tic. They have moments of singular physical beauty, too―Cox’s dreamy dance with a Fourth of July sparkler, Anthony’s Beat-infused reading from atop the dumpster. It’s easy to see how Evan (a pitch-perfect Zachary Burrell), a nerdy, stilted, up-talking busboy, could become fascinated with their bizarre little nest, an inner zone where the needs and acts of the outside world need not intrude, and feel like he, too, might belong to it and to them.
KJ and Jasper don’t bond over albums and video games like most small-town guys their age. They love the poems of Charles Bukowski, and manage to make what is often a cautionary character trait seem charming, even innocent. And if they are job-less losers with nowhere better to go than the picnic table next to a coffee shop’s dumpster, they are at least creating―out of KJ’s wild imagination comes an endearing original song, and Jasper’s writing a novel, no worse than many first novel drafts that make their way into university workshops every day. Their potential is there, but the realization is stunted by circumstance and their ability to move forward in the world―if only, if only, this play seems to say. I have known these men, as probably many have, and they and their lost potential are one tragedy after another. To watch a young Evan devastated by them is yet another round. Really, this entire play is a heartbreaker. (Isn’t that one reason we go to the theater, to break our hearts over and over? Think of it as good exercise.) And yet Baker’s optimism shines through even a tragic ending. These men, overlooked by most, were there for each other. They mattered to someone.
As in previous productions, Theatre ‘s artistic affiliates are in fine design form for this show. Karl Anderson’s set makes solid use of the intimate VJ stage, creating a delightfully authentic nest (those awful, sturdy green plastic chairs; the ubiquitous empty flower pots that signal hope for a cheerful oasis has withered from neglect). His fence and gate surrounding the patio also allow some key differences between the characters to take physical form. Jesse AlFord’s lights literally illuminate a beautiful moment the three share when Fourth of July fireworks begin. And while Anthony’s sound design plays a less prominent role in this show than in others (there’s a lot of silence, remember), linger a bit after curtain to hear the beautiful recording of the “Frogmen” song, a small bit of legacy KJ and Jasper can leave behind (recorded by The Greens, Michael Chernus, the original KJ, and Patch Darragh).
“The Aliens” opened Friday and runs through Oct. 13 in the Victor Jory Theatre at Actors Theatre of Louisville.