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Annie Baker’s scripts probably wouldn’t work as radio plays: Her great theme is the way everyday speech is so often inadequate to express our thoughts. I haven’t seen her new adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya yet, but her first three plays find no delight in the musical possibilities of language; more often, they mourn its impotence. A dramaturg’s note in the program of Studio Theatre’s new production of her drama The Aliens—which shared the 2010 Obie Award for Best New Play with Circle Mirror Transformation, another Baker play that Studio staged two years ago—tells us “Baker dictates that at least one-third, if not half, of the play is silence,” which here equals 40 to 60 minutes of wordless reverie. Baker visited Studio during rehearsal, so the pause interval of director Lila Neugebauer’s languid interpretation presumably meets manufacturer specifications. It certainly seemed to tax the concentration of the audience when I saw the play: I was several rows away from the woman who crowed, “This is like watching paint dry!” in the middle of the show, but I heard her loud and clear.
She was being unfair.
It would be similarly unfair to call The Aliens a stoner comedy, partly because two of its three characters favor harder vices but mainly because there aren’t many jokes. Set entirely in the alley behind a coffeeshop (in Shirley, the same fictional Vermont town where its precursors Circle Mirror Transformation and Body Awareness take place), the piece tracks a budding friendship between a shy, smart Jewish kid named Evan (Brian Miskell) and two 30-something, bearded, Bukowski-worshipping dropouts, who frequently reassure one another of their mutual genius. Jasper (Peter O’Connor) has been dumped by his girlfriend and claims to be working on a novel. KJ (Scot McKenzie) seems to spend most of his time “trying to sneeze,” as he says early on, and lying prone on the asphalt, waiting for someone to pass him his Psilocybin-spiked tea.
O’Connor and Miskell reprise their roles as the would-be novelist and the kid, respectively, from the show’s San Francisco Playhouse production earlier this year. They’re both persuasive and winning, which may be too mild a compliment given Baker’s mumblecore dialogue is not remotely the sort of writing that does an actor’s work for him. But McKenzie is the show’s standout. His flinty, scruffy KJ is exactly the sort of underachieving but enigmatic adult whose approval an awkward teen would crave. McKenzie is the one who has to be compelling while lying motionless and mute—and while singing tuneless songs about calculus. KJ majored in math and philosophy, and the mental breakdown that required him to leave college and never return would come as no surprise if he’d ever seen Good Will Hunting. Or A Beautiful Mind. Or Proof. Is no one allowed to be crazy without the attendant gift of brilliance?
McKenzie manages the neat trick of giving KJ an internal life, and that’s what ultimately makes The Aliens compelling. It’s no mean trick, given that the play’s sole plot point occurs offstage and is revealed to us with so little pomp that I kept expecting to Baker to come back and reverse it.