Playwright Annie Baker's first stage direction for "The Aliens" begins with an admonition: "This is important: At least a third — if not half — of this play is silence." This "Aliens" only sorta-kinda pulls off Baker's silence trick.
Silence isn’t always golden. Sometimes monsters lurk beneath a long pause, swimming through the thorny thoughts people can’t — or won’t — articulate.
Playwright Annie Baker (“Circle Mirror Transformation,” “The Flick,” Pulitzer Prize winner, MacArthur “Genius” fellow) loves her awkward pauses, and spent the early part of her career trying to leverage them into the drama of the unspoken.
Baker built those early plays like an airy Lego tower with more gaps than bricks. This will try anyone’s patience — and it places a huge burden on actors, directors and designers to make silence compelling. Her first stage direction for “The Aliens” (which premiered Off-Broadway in 2010, when Baker was in her late 20s) begins with an admonition. “This is important: At least a third — if not half — of this play is silence.”
ReAct Theatre’s “Aliens” (about a couple of hippie/beatnik slackers who hang out behind a Vermont cafe and awkwardly make friends with a nervous, nerdy, 17-year-old) only sorta-kinda pulls off Baker’s silence trick.
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In theory, the pauses should give their banal observations (“Don’t you mind the smell back here?” “Can’t smell a thing, my brother”) some Beckett/”Waiting for Godot”-level ballast.
And at times, once you see flickers of the pair’s grim, mostly unspoken monsters (hint: drugs, mental illness, dropout culture, general malaise), their silence can be deafening. At others, it just seems like they’re following the stage directions.
The first image of “The Aliens” feels like a Polaroid from college-town Vermont during the slouching twilight of the George W. Bush years. Our two slackers (KJ and Jasper) lounge at a picnic table.
To their left: garbage and recycling bins. To their right: a few wood pallets, crushed cans, a shopping cart, old car tires (one cultivating a few tall tufts of grass). Behind them: a wood-shingled wall with a door reading, “Please use the front entrance.”
But these gents aren’t front-entrance dudes. If anti-social lethargy were a superpower, they’d be its Not-So-Dynamic Duo.
KJ (Cooper Harris-Turner) wears a tie-dyed T-shirt, a beard and a placid mien, except for those glinting eyes. Is he high? Slightly mad? Both? His pal Jasper (Curtis Gehlhausen) cuts a snarlier figure: black T-shirt, gray stocking cap, smoking with tense, quiet fury.
After a long pause (of course), KJ begins singing: “I won’t/waste away/wondering why/I won’t go down like that.”
It’s already hard to believe him.
They briefly talk about Jasper’s old weed dealer who moved to a wind farm. KJ tries to scare up a sneeze by staring into the sun. Jasper says he doesn’t want to talk about his breakup with Andrea, but then talks about it. Blackout.
In the next scene, after a quiet lull, we catch a hint of what lies beneath their laconic friendship. Jasper anxiously asks KJ: “Are you freaking out? … You have to tell me if you start feeling weird again, man.” After another pause, KJ comes to a conclusion: “Projecting, man. You’re projecting.” Yet another pause. Jasper reaches for his cigarettes. Blackout.
So it’s always a relief when Evan Shelmerdine, the 17-year-old cafe employee (played with proper fidgeting by Alan E. Garcia), shows up. At first, he comes with bad news: The pair aren’t supposed to hang out behind the cafe. They don’t budge.
Evan slowly, cautiously befriends the Not-So-Dynamic Duo. He’s college bound, working a summer job at the cafe, will be a “counselor-in-training” at a Jewish music camp — but the pair’s inarticulate gospel of slack seems tempting and transgressive.
Garcia has a wonderful solo moment toward the end of the second act. Alone by the picnic table and trying to emulate Jasper, he furtively pulls out a pack of Marlboros. He gingerly taps the pack against his palm, fumbles through unwrapping the plastic, carefully pulls out a cigarette for the first time. The moment is an heir to Charlie Chaplin: Garcia’s facial twitches (the furtiveness, the pleasure of holding something naughty in his hands, the frustration of not being cool enough to know how it works, the flash of pleasure when he finally extracts a smoke) telegraph the essence of Evan in a few wordless seconds.
Gehlhausen and Harris-Turner also have their fine quiet moments — especially Harris-Turner’s more rhapsodic, stoned (and/or mad) reveries. We can watch him think, or strain himself to the breaking point trying to, before his train of thought arrives at its station: That it’s hot today. Or that he wants to sing a song from his and Jasper’s old band. (The Aliens was one of its many names, along with Frogmen, Pillowface, and The Limp Handshakes.) Or, after a long silent stare: “If P then Q.”
But something about this “Aliens” — a reprise of ReAct’s 2016 production with the same actors and director — feels a little too clean, both physically and emotionally. There’s nothing particularly grimy about the butt end of the cafe. (A little light work with spray paint and sharpies on the set’s surfaces, a few strewn cigarette butts and a wipe-down of the set with a greasy rag would’ve worked wonders.)
Despite its few peak moments, the play (and the production) starts to feel like an extension of its characters, groping incompetently toward something resembling meaning.
But not to worry. Baker wrote that play on the upswing of her career. Her latest, “The Antipodes” (about a writers’ room where people are trying to come up with a video game or TV series or some undefined something), is allegedly faster and has pulled glowing reviews from critics in New York, Los Angeles and Austin.
With any luck, it will be on a Seattle stage soon — and we’ll get to see Baker’s latest attempt to show us how we fail to say what we mean. And vice versa.
“The Aliens,” by Annie Baker. Through July 29; ReAct Theatre at 12th Ave Arts, 1620 12th Ave., Seattle; $12-$20; 800-838-3006 or reacttheatre.org