(Photo: Tristram Kenton)
Ralf Little, Mackenzie Crook, Olly Alexander
Annie Baker’s The Aliens harks back to the slacker subgenre best encapsulated in the mid-1990s by the early films of Richard Linklater and the plays of Eric Bogosian; in fact, superficially at least, Baker's play brings to mind Clerks-era Kevin Smith - minus the rooftop hockey and the scatological excess.|
The play, which debuted at New York’s Rattlestick Theatre earlier this year, is set in the yard behind a Vermont coffee shop. This is the place where thirty-something drop-outs Jasper and KJ spend their days, sitting and smoking and talking.
Though they once toyed with the idea of starting a band together – The Aliens was one of many band names they considered - Jasper is now intent on penning a Bukowski-influenced novel while KJ’s energies (if that’s not too strong a term) go into perfecting a better blend of shroom tea.
Theirs is a life of Beckettian repetition and stasis, punctured by occasional interruptions from Evan, a high school student who works at the coffee shop and is worried their presence will get him to trouble. Though he’s initially wary, a gentle friendship grows between them and they end up sitting in the yard together on the Fourth of July, eating brownies as fireworks explode on the other side of the fence.
There’s a measured and elegant quality to Baker’s writing, a precision; her dialogue is full of small silences punctuated by an occasional intense verbal volley (the need for frequent pauses in delivery is specified in the script). Yet in her own slow-burning way she conveys a strong sense of a parallel America, one driven by a different dream.
The play is compassionately directed by Peter Gill, who draws warm performances from Ralf Little, as KJ, and Mackenzie Crook, as Jasper. Both men manage to make these directionless and occasionally frustrating characters sympathetic and endearing, though at times it’s a delicate line; Crook’s Jasper is marginally the more enigmatic of two, hollow-cheeked and mentally tormented by his crazy sometime girlfriend, Andrea. But it’s Olly Alexander’s nervy, hesitant Evan who makes the strongest mark, quietly awestruck by his involvement with this pair of outsiders, never quite shaking off his adolescent awkwardness but nonetheless growing in confidence. There’s something incredibly tender about the glow of contentment on his face as he lights his first cigarette and plucks up the courage to call a girl he likes.
Lucy Osborne’s set has the audience seated almost on top of the performers in a well-realised recreation of the coffee shop’s grubby back yard, complete with trash cans, concrete floor and a corrugated iron wall over which the actors are occasionally required to haul themselves. Yet it’s oddly unclaustrophobic, despite the physical closeness – the nature of the Gill’s direction and the play itself ensures a level of emotional distance is maintained.
The play’s delicacy eventually works against it. It feels overstretched, something only enhanced by unnecessary interval, and while the narrative is not entirely empty of incident, its gentle aimlessness doesn’t entirely sustain it. The performances are the things that stick, along with the overall atmosphere of the piece, the unhurried pace, this feel for the people who are "not even near to being one of them", who are always destined to be on the wrong side of the fence to the parade and the cheers and the fireworks.