Aliens found lurking in the human brain, heart

Third Rail Rep's "The Aliens" probes our dark matter...

Chris Murray and Isaac Lamb in "The Aliens"/Third Rail Repertory Theatre

Chris Murray and Isaac Lamb in “The Aliens”/Owen Carey

Toward the end of Annie Baker’s “The Aliens,” Evan makes a call to Nicole, another counselor at music camp he met earlier that summer. She’s a violist, and Evan starts with a little chit-chat about her orchestra and blurts out that he’s smoking, then that a friend of his has died suddenly, and finally that he wants to come to visit her in Boston.

That little speech is why I like “The Aliens” so much. Its psychology is so acute, its understanding of our condition, whipsawed by loss and its close companion desire, mystified by the process of becoming, which seems to require so much dull and self-destructive time in between the flashes of insight.

Conventional theater offers conventional characters, and those characters are nearly always a little more integrated, symbolic, and predictable than people are. That doesn’t mean that they don’t offer a lot of important stuff to us. They do. But they are compressed, simplified, embroiled in problems that have solutions, resolutions. We can learn from them, laugh at them, feel deeply about those problems and even the characters themselves, such is the power of theater. But generally speaking (and I’m painting with a roller not even a broad brush), they don’t describe our lives at its most granular all that well. Maybe because that’s impossible for Observer Effect reasons…

But that’s why I have fallen so hard for “The Aliens.” It doesn’t feel compressed and simplified. It doesn’t offer typical psychological arcs or narrative lines. It begins to pick at our intermittence, our disjointedness, our impulses and our ennui, our memories and convenient fictions. And it makes a compelling play out of them, such is the power of theater.

****

Christopher Isherwood, reviewing for the New York Times, compared the two central characters of “The Aliens,” KJ and Jasper, to a slacker version of Beckett’s Didi and Gogo, and he loves it: “Ms. Baker may just have the subtlest way with exposition of anyone writing for the theater today.”

But we always know that Didi and Gogo are fictional characters, wonderful and fictional, governed by Beckett’s logic and imagination. “The Aliens” is both more specific than Isherwood suggests in the review—I don’t see KJ and Jasper as reducible to “slackers”—and through that specificity, paradoxically enough, makes a leap toward the biggest of generalizations about human consciousness.

I don’t think those specifics are the result of “compassionate, truthful observation,’’ as Isherwood writes, though the wonder of the play is that it seems that way. I don’t think Baker sat at a cafe in some little Vermont town and reported what she saw. I think she excavated a lot more deeply than that and created a world that seems so real, especially in the cozy confines of CoHo Theater, you can touch it.

****

Chris Murray and Bryce Earhart in "The Aliens"/Third Rail Rep

Chris Murray and Bryce Earhart in “The Aliens”/Owen Carey

Third Rail Repertory Theatre opened “The Aliens” at CoHo last night, and I liked so many things about the production, it’s hard to know where to begin. Just for starters, I liked Isaac Lamb’s singing and his finger tapping, Chris Murray’s long stares and swift shifts from self-possession to doubt, Bryce Earhart’s phone message and the slump and lean of his walk.

“The Aliens” is set in a little clearing behind a restaurant, the sort of place where employees might go and smoke, take some sun in the lawn chairs, or eat lunch at the picnic table, if it didn’t smell so much from the garbage cans. KJ (Lamb) and Jasper (Murray) hang out there, for reasons never explained. Maybe it’s the last best place.

KJ’s a college dropout, though he seems to know more than average about math, and he has some sort of psychological issue that makes it hard to get any traction in his life. He treats it with both traditional meds and mushrooms and sometimes with alcohol, though that seems to end badly. Jasper dropped out of high school, has girlfriends, reads Charles Bukowski and is nearly finished with his own first novel. Together, they formed a band that had a series of names, and although I personally would have voted for The Frogmen, Baker takes her title from another of the band’s identifiers, The Aliens, taken from the title of Bukowski poem. KJ is 30; I surmised that Jasper was a bit younger.

But these quick capsules of them? They aren’t that useful, because they lead to the very compression that the play undermines. They are an armature and a form of coloration. Baker doesn’t tell their stories; she shows the restless twitches of their minds, sublime and silly, and their efforts to understand what is happening to them, or, really, what is NOT happening to them.

A new employee at the restaurant enters this no man’s land to drop off the garbage and tell KJ and Jasper to scoot. Evan is still in high school, though he’s headed for Bates, a musician who is friendless and uncomfortable with himself and with that brittle self’s place in the world, the kind of kid you feel safe looking past because he seems so harmless. And they become friends of a sort, because despite their sparring and impulsiveness, both Jasper and KJ are warm-hearted, and their stories about themselves and the wisdom they’ve harvested from those stories amaze and inform Evan.

Lamb’s eyes are soft and safe. Murray’s moments of ease and kindness are punctuated with something more definite and pointed. And Evan becomes one of the gang, because with these two, awkwardness isn’t a problem. The only thing that’s important is honest reflection, maybe the only utopian aspect of “The Aliens.” Jasper reads from his novel; Lamb sings an old song of the Frogmen; they share and they enjoy the sharing.

****

Chris Murray and Isaac Lamb in "The Aliens"/Third Rail Rep

Chris Murray and Isaac Lamb in “The Aliens”/Owen Carey

Portland has had a couple of fine productions of Baker plays, Artists Rep’s “Circle Mirror Transformation” and Portland Playhouse’s “Body Awareness.” She’s a young playwright, born in 1981, who grew up in Amherst, Mass., graduated from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and earned an MFA from Brooklyn College. Since graduating she’s been on a steep trajectory, winning various fellowships and getting the kind of early reviews for her plays that a playwright could only dream about.

Both “Body Awareness” and “Circle Mirror Transformation” dealt with “issues”—compassion, love, desire, the place of women, relationships—but they did so deftly, almost gently, with a lot of humor that managed to add to our understanding of what she was exploring not simply to divert us. They were also more conventional than “The Aliens,” in the style of the contemporary American play, with its short, sharp, occasionally oblique episodes.

They weren’t as crunchy as “The Aliens” or as risky. At one point in the second act, which takes a disturbing turn that I won’t go into here, at the beginning of the run, KJ talks to Evan about how, when he was five, he used to say the word “ladder” all day. He couldn’t stop. And one night, his mother (the only mention of his family in the play) came to his bed and held him. She told him he could say “ladder” all he wanted as loud as he wanted, and KJ re-enacts that moment, all the pain in it and all the pain since, maybe the best song of The Frogmen.

Lamb is transcendent in this moment, pushing himself and us many beats and decibels past what we’d consider appropriate. I wanted him to stop. I didn’t want him to stop. Director Tim True has a sense about these risky moments, and it will come as no surprise to those who’ve seen him perform himself to hear that he never underplays them, never glides past them, encourages the actors to take the leap.

The silences are long in “The Aliens,” too, as long as Pinter or Beckett, not that I’m making any direct comparisons. And I have no idea if this is just another experiment by a young playwright or something more programmatic, the attempt to bring our current insight into our psychology and its fragmentary nature, to the stage.

****

Do real young men talk this way, think this way, joke this way, grieve this way, dream this way? The implication of Isherwood’s review three years ago (which, by the way, I think is really a good one) is that they do, and that Baker caught them in the act somehow.

I have no idea. Which young men? Pressed, I’d say that I don’t think any particular three young men would manifest this particular set of neuronal responses, I guess. But that’s not the point. What I recognize is the pattern (or maybe the lack of a pattern). How Murray’s Jasper can brood in the most profound way about his lost girlfriend one moment and flip into another mode the next, charming and dry and engaging. How we can almost see the wheels spinning inside Earhart’s head as his Evan contemplates the information he’s receiving, the behavior he is observing.

Recognizing the pattern, I’m willing to follow the particulars wherever they might lead, such is the power of theater.

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