The “Aliens” that Annie Baker treats with such compassion and cruelty in her new play of that name are the leftover kids from “American Idiot” and “Rent,” ten years on — the ones who survived their 20s and are entering their 30s with no artistic talent, no practical skills, and a bad drug habit. Baker’s losers and the naive high school boy who falls for their pathetic line of b-s are the kind of characters that tyro companies love to get their hands on. But it takes pro skill to keep the sketched-in dialog and dragged-out silences from becoming overly mannered.
Sam Gold, who also directed Baker’s “Circle Mirror Transformation,” scores with another ultra-clean production, this one solidly in the iconoclastic spirit that defines the Rattlestick sensibility. From Andrew Lieberman’s rough set of the back patio of a diner in end-of-the-world rural Vermont to the tee shirts that rags-man Bobby Fredrick Tilley II uses to telegraph the thoughts of the people wearing them, this is one meticulously mounted show.
Jasper (Erin Gann) and KJ (Michael Chernus), the two scruffy, bearded slackers who have made this uninviting spot their refuge, treat it as their private sanctuary where they can hide out from the real world and indulge their pretensions of being an artistic genius (Jasper) and a mystic healer (KJ).
Gann knows how to stand his stage ground, and his glaring Jasper remains a calm, almost dead center of quiet craziness. The slightly more socialized KJ concentrates on finding words, or song lyrics, for the inchoate thoughts buzzing in his medicated brain. Chernus, a big fella who uses his bulk to emphasize KJ’s verbal clumsiness, makes his struggles as sad as they are funny,
No one but an idiot — or a 17-year-old high school boy — would fall for the pathetic fantasies of these ersatz hippies. The moony stroke-songs (“Triple Dimensional Superstar”) supplied by Patch Darragh and both of the actors, and sung with touching belief in their goodness by Chernus’s KJ, are hilariously awful. As is the original literary passage (“Her bedroom smelled faintly of stale piss …”) that Jasper reads aloud.
There are no mental defectives in this play, but Evan (Dane Dehaan), the kid who works in the kitchen, fills the bill for a gullible audience. Shy, skinny, and pathologically lonesome, Evan is a heartbreaker and Dehaan, who looks about 12 but has the acting chops of a veteran, is a rare find. The young thesp may be a novice, but he nails it all: the quaking voice, the caved-in chest, the yearning eyes of the boy who desperately longs for a friend. Once Dehaan lets down Evan’s cover and begins to reveal the depths of his isolation in this backwater town, the play finally gets serious.
In another world, “The Aliens” (one of many discarded names for the rock band that Jasper and KJ never got off the ground) would be another sensitive short story about the inarticulateness of a sad generation of lost boys. The slender story has more heft on the stage, but given the lack of action and conflict, along with all those self-indulgent pauses and attenuated stretches of silence, it doesn’t quite measure up as a full-length play. The characters — and the actors who play them — save it. But Baker is a real talent and she can do better than this.