Sometimes it can be uncomfortable to sit in silence with a neo-hippie burnout on shrooms and his pissed off, chain smoking sidekick. In “The Aliens,” now on stage at the BCA courtesy of Company One, the experience turns out to be well worthwhile.
“The Aliens” is the second work by Amherst-born playwright Annie Baker, set in the fictional town of Shirley, Vermont; all three of which are currently being staged at the BCA by three different local companies. Each takes on a different intersection of Vermont personalities, mixing townies and transplants, straights and members of an array of counter-cultures.
This installment introduces us to K.J. (Alex Pollack), a 30-year-old college dropout who lives with his mother and spends most of his time in a meditative haze sponsored by a cocktail of legal meds and illegal psychedelics, chilling on the hidden terrace behind the Green Sheep Coffee Shop (which is rendered in exquisite, dead-on detail by set designer Christina Todesco). Pollack’s K.J. is an impressive creation with a rich vocabulary of gestures, twitches, facial expressions and capering movements which combine to denote quick-shifting and dramatically varied emotional states. He is blissed out at rest but easily nudged into other extremes.
K.J.’s chief companion and principal nudger is Jasper (Nael Nacer), a more restless figure who wears a scowl and a bushy beard and chain-smokes American Spirit cigarettes. Jasper is a drifter from a small, dirt-poor New Hampshire town, who struggles in love with the same intensity with which he pursues his life’s work—fiction writing. How he pays his cell phone and coffee bills, we are not told. K.J. and Jasper both suspect that Jasper just may be a genius, and the excerpt we get of his novel-in-progress suggests that there is at least a real possibility this may be so.
Conflict, such as it exists, enters the play in the most innocent of frames, in the person of Evan (Jacob Brandt), a Shirley High School senior, awkward to the point of stutters and facial ticks, who starts a summer job at the café and is told to ask the vagrants on the terrace to loiter elsewhere.
The threat to our “Aliens” here is not great. As much their lives would be impacted if they were shooed form their refuge, it’s clear that Evan lacks the courage to take a stand Evan struggles, and not just to overcome his fear. He’s not popular, and he’s not a fan of his small-town crowd. The really conflict for Evan comes in the fact that, while they are in some ways threatening, there is a thrill in the possibility of being liked by these older, cooler, more dangerous young men. He has never met anyone like K.J. and Jasper, and as unimpressive as they may seem to us, to Evan they represent something exciting—a life outside the mainstream made so much the more alluring by the possibility that, like their hero, Charles Bukowski, Jasper may be literary diamond in the rough.
“The Aliens” spends a lot of time on simmer. Baker herself writes that “about 1/3 of the play should be silence.” It’s a Becket-like exercise in minimalism that makes each small event, each change, feel amplified. The play really gets cooking in the second act when we begin to see hints that K.J. might not be as harmless a freeloader as he seems. Set around the 4th of July, “the Aliens” features a fireworks display heard faintly in the distance. There aren’t a lot of metaphorical fireworks on display here either but there are some detailed and compelling character portraits that are just as worth viewing—and may stay with you longer.
Directed by Shawn LaCount, “The Aliens” plays at the Boston Center for the Arts, in Hall A at the Calderwood Pavilion, through November 20.