The Aliens is a startling, melancholy, unsettling and powerful story, told with a sparse, sometimes lyrical script by Annie Baker, of three guys struggling to connect in the famished, arid context of heterosexual male conviviality, such as it is. Jasper and KJ meet in the torn up, rundown backyard of a restaurant where a waitress who used to work there, gave them permission to come and chill. There is broken furniture, the acrid smell of paint cans, sand, trash cans and cigarette butts. Production Designer Christopher Ham has created a vivid setting for the, vacuous ramshackle state of the character’s lives. The employees come out here for smoke breaks, though we never see any of them, except for Evan. Jasper and KJ are severely damaged by disappointment, catastrophe, rejection, ennui. They hang out, get high, engage in disjointed, intermittent conversation.
As Evan comes out from time to time, they start to include him in their tenuous bond, inviting him to a Fourth of July “Party” meeting in the same backyard. The restaurant is closed, so why not? Evan’s hesitant to participate in this vaguely transgressive behavior, but actually does show up, bringing sweets and Peppermint Schnapps. Jasper reads some of his Kerouac inspired poetry, plays some music on the guitar. It’s really a party for fringe dwellers and rebels (considering none of the other “guests” arrive) their anger and cynicism separating them from the hoi polloi. From time to time, they are overcome by the beauty of fireworks erupting in the sky. Evan subsequently goes away to a training session for Jewish Music Seminar Counselors and returns in a week. KJ’s on his own, while Jasper nurses the flu.
In some ways The Aliens (one on the names for a band the two never got off the ground) reminded me of Ingmar Bergman‘s films, like Persona, if he’d been more interested in women, or Robert Altman’s Three Women. I may be reaching, a bit, but it’s a purposefully dry character study of three guys who need each other, as all friends do. There’s no erotic subtext, they are simply in profound pain, but unable to reach out to each other in any meaningful way. No that they don’t try. One of the most surprising moments is when KJ says to Evan, “I love you.” It truly seems to come out of the blue. KJ always seems so spacey and distracted, it’s very difficult to read, then he makes a “save” by explaining that he was just messing with Evan. At this point, you realize, inexplicably, that KJ was serious, but the clumsy, stoic nature of their attempted fraternity is so pervasive, you feel disoriented. As Jasper, the tragically detached, cool alpha, leaves the picture, we see that Evan, the tragically withdrawn one, begins to take his place.
Annie Baker has created a strange balance in The Aliens, or perhaps a better word might be imbalance. Three disenfranchised men yearn for some respite in their lives, in the merciless vacuum of masculine culture and expectation. I may be placing too much emphasis on gender here, but it just seems to me that even if it were three alienated women, they’d be far more comfortable exposing their vulnerability and damage. Far more effusive in their enjoyment of each other’s company. Director David Denson has given the show a slow, relaxed pace, which feels appropriate to the gargantuan emptiness Jasper, KJ and Evan are struggling with. It’s as if they feel paralyzed by fear or discouraged by the hopelessness of ridiculously low expectations, but still are invested enough to make some kind of ambivalent effort. It’s like we’re watching three men on an enormous ship with a leak. They can’t decide whether to fix or ignore it. I should add The Aliens ends on a contingently positive note, but it’s a rough, intensely somber ride.
Upstart Productions presents The Aliens : playing August 8th-31st. Written by Annie Baker. Directed by David Denson. Starring : Justin Duncan, Joey Folsom and Tim Maher. Magnolia Lounge. 1121 First Avenue, Dallas, Texas 75210. 469-364-9038. www.upstarttheater.com