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The Aliens

Annie Baker's offbeat, slyly intriguing play about three unlikely friends benefits from strong acting and direction.

Erin Gann, Michael Chernus and Dane DeHaan
in The Aliens
(© Sandra Coudert)
The Aliens, currently getting its world premiere at Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre, is another offbeat, slyly intriguing drama with comedy from Annie Baker, and another rewarding collaboration with director Sam Gold, who also helmed the playwright's recent Circle Mirror Transformation.

The three character, two-act play is set entirely behind a coffee house in small-town Vermont, around a picnic table that has become the daily hang-out for thirty-something drifters KJ (Michael Chernus) and Jasper (Erin Gann). While hauling trash out back to the garbage bins, socially awkward teenager Evan (Dane DeHaan, in an indelible performance) works up the courage to tell them that his boss has made the area off-limits except to employees. It's useless; the two slackers have made the place their own and stare him down in challenge.

Over the course of the play's first act, the two overgrown stoners, sipping tea spiked with psychedelic mushrooms, slowly work the painfully shy teenager into the groove of their seemingly random conversations. Although Jasper, who is writing a novel with a main character with no name, and KJ, who regularly sings trippy songs out loud seemingly to himself, make unlikely, comical friends for the boy, the three soon accept each other. A surprising plot development in the second act deepens the characters' interactions, giving the play an unexpected emotional gravity.

There are seemingly more minutes of silence than there are of dialogue in Baker's script; the leanness makes strange and intriguing even the most banal exchanges. The effect is purposeful -- there's a mildly hazed authenticity that sounds like how people might talk while circled around a bong. The play may seem deceptively aimless at times, and the moments that close the first act might be a little too loose, but every word counts not only to create the rhythm of the play but to reveal character.

Gold not only sets the production's deliberate pace, but he guides all three actors to rich characterizations within the precise tone. DeHaan is entirely convincing as the emotionally isolated Evan; from the defensive posture to the timid line readings, the actor makes bold characterization choices that pay off spectacularly. Gann brings a believably shaggy vibe to Jasper, suggesting a dreamer at heart who believes in his aspirations no matter how far out of reach. Chernus, given more of the play's heavy lifting as KJ, navigates sensitively from the character's slightly stoned musings to his moments of deeper vulnerability.