By Annie Baker. Directed by Kevin Bennett. A Sticks and Stones Theatre production. At Havana Theatre on Saturday, January 27. Continues until February 4
What a story silence can tell if you tune in to it. This production of The Aliens is exquisitely tuned.
American playwright Annie Baker’s script offers an extreme form of naturalism: her characters are far from heroic; they’re often barely articulate. More than a third of the playing time consists of silent pauses in the dialogue, and if you think that sounds tedious, think again: the quiet contains enormous emotional riches.
The Aliens is set in an alley behind a restaurant, where Jasper and KJ, a pair of friends in their 30s, like to hang out. When Evan, a new employee, tells them they’re not allowed to be there, the trio strike up an odd sort of friendship.
Evan’s innocence is counterpointed by the undertow of disappointment in the older men. Jasper’s an aspiring novelist grieving the end of a relationship; KJ is a college dropout whose apparent brilliance hasn’t found a conventional outlet—he still lives at home with his mom.
The play’s title is one of the names of their erstwhile band; it explicitly alludes to a Charles Bukowski poem about the unfathomable fact of “people who go through life with very little friction or distress”. These characters are not those people; their silences give them space to be broken and for us to relate to and care deeply for them. There’s very little action in the play; the first act culminates in a shared Fourth of July celebration behind the restaurant, complete with peppermint schnapps and fireworks.
But the real pyrotechnics are in Baker’s masterfully mundane dialogue—and its abundant pauses—which director Kevin Bennett and his cast deliver with grace and humour. Jasper is often in denial, about his breakup (“I don’t need to talk about it,” is how he caps a minilecture on the subject) or a sudden crippling chest pain that doubles him over (“I feel fantastic, though,” he says without irony), and Tim Howe makes his every word and every pause ring true. It would be easy to make the eccentric KJ a caricature, but Zac Scott’s performance is grounded and authentic. As Evan, Teo Saefkow is eager to please, hesitant, self-effacing—a thoroughly convincing innocent. The actors are all fully committed to their characters’ vulnerability.
The play’s intimacy is supported by the Havana’s cozy confines, and Stephanie Wong’s production design gets every detail right, from the paper lanterns hanging above the alley’s picnic table, and its bleached-out daytime lighting, to the hole in the chainlink fence along the side.
The run is short and the venue is small, but The Aliens is the real thing: theatre that opens your heart and expands your soul. Make sure you don’t miss it.