Michael Chernus, Dane DeHaan, Erin Gann
After receiving much praise for her play Circle Mirror Transformation earlier this season at Playwrights Horizons, Annie Baker, a playwright of much talent, returns with an amiable play called The Aliens, now playing at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, a continuation of the stoner genre begun by playwrights like Kenneth Lonergan and Eric Bogosian that revolves around a group of restless young men hanging around the back patio of a Vermont coffee shop.
Evan (Dane DeHaan), a local coffee shop worker and high school student, happens one day during his first week on the job upon college dropout stoners KJ (Michael Chernus) and Jasper (Erin Gann). Initially resenting their resistance of authority (they’re really not supposed to be hanging out on the back patio), he eventually warms to their presence and even befriends them, sneaking out for a Fourth of July party at their hangout spot and listening to their stories about their makeshift band, sometimes called The Aliens (it’s gone through more name changes than could be counted).
Baker’s play, which unfolds over the course of a summer, takes its time revealing itself. There’s a quietness about the story she’s trying to tell that occasionally threatens to overwhelm an audience unused to the kinds of silences Baker seems content to capture in her writing. Characters go for long stretches without talking, or else they repeat the same word over and over in numb, mind-rattling repetition. It’s a calculated choice and one that suits the languorous characters captured by the play, but it’s also one that encourages a kind of stasis that can be dramatically unsatisfying despite moments of descriptive clarity that remind us of Baker’s talent as a writer.
Director Sam Gold helms the play with confidence, giving Baker’s play perhaps the best production possible considering the weaknesses of the text. Andrew Lieberman’s claustrophobic, small-town set, which transports us into the small world of these characters’ patio, is highly effective, and songs, cowritten by Chernus, Gann, and Patch Darragh, befit the mood of the piece.
The hard-working cast of three help keep the play buoyant and lively more often than not. Dane DeHaan’s naivete as Evan suitably counterbalances the reckless-yet-inert personalities of laidback KJ and occasionally charismatic Jasper, who eventually captivates the young coffee shop employee. These hard-working actors make Baker’s The Aliens worthwhile, as does Baker’s occasionally insightful script, which makes for amiable viewing even if it pales in comparison with Circle Mirror Transformation. Certainly, Baker is one to watch, and this play – if it’s ultimately considered minor in her oeuvre – is no embarrassment.