San Francisco Theater Review: THE ALIENS (SF Playhouse in San Francisco)

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by Stacy Trevenon on April 16, 2012

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area

THE ALIENS CUTS CLOSE TO THE BONE

The Aliens was already sailing high when it made its West Coast premiere at the SF Playhouse, as it has been hailed by the New York Times as a “gentle and extraordinarily beautiful new play.” Playwright Annie Baker, an emerging young talent already rising to the top of her game, clearly shows the skills for which she is famous: her dexterous ease with subtleties, believable contemporary dialogue, and the recognition of potency in silence. But to this critic at least, the play is not quite yet as fully realized or polished as it could be: still a little nascent, one more rewrite may be needed to burnish it to the level it has the potential to reach.

Reinforcing Baker’s reputation for dexterity with slice-of-life scenarios, it offers two classically deadbeat thirtysomethings hanging out by the dumpster behind a Vermont coffee shop, exchanging roughhewn meditations on philosophy, ‘shrooms and life. The gripping Haynes Thigpen (as an on-the-edge KJ) and buoyant Peter O’Connor (as the budding novelist Jasper) comfortably render subtleties and crystallize character with a flick of an eye, as they silently impart backstory within Baker’s long pauses. When teen busboy Evan Shelmerdine (a riveting Brian Miskell) asks them to leave and the two decline, the trio forms an unlikely bond, a coming of age friendship which ultimately leads to redemption.

The coffee shop yard becomes a slice of the contemporary alternative-lifestyle community, believably sketched in Bill English’s ultra-realistic set (made with reclaimed materials) and Christine Crook’s simple costuming. That miniature universe is further captured in Baker’s terse dialogue, replete with surreal humor, as the three share stories of everything from an annoying parent to loss of innocence to their take on the Fourth of July.

Under Lila Neugebauer’s direction, poignant touches are nicely captured, such as the moment when KJ dances with a sparkler as Fourth of July fireworks burst outside, but it’s within the dialogue that the play’s beauty flowers: especially when KJ spouts profoundly philosophical gibberish or when cigarette-puffing Jasper forges a bond of bonhomie by lighting up with Evan, a sensitive teen finding his way in the world.

But the play doesn’t quite get as far as it could, which I think is a shame given all it has going for it. Within Baker’s signature pauses these three master actors no doubt impart multi-dimensional character choices, but I think it’s also in those pauses that continuity jerks to a halt and the flow is potentially lost. Pregnant silences meant to build the story become too much of a good thing. I would say these pauses, used more judiciously and where appropriate, would serve the story far more effectively. The jarring rock music between scenes, perhaps meant to reinforce the disjointed theme, backfires, further yanking the audience away from the story (original music and lyrics by Michael Chernus, Patch Darragh and Erin Gann).

There is also, without giving away plot, a crucial scene that should seize the audience but fails to have the impact it should: when one of the boys receives some startling news, he reacts with shock as reality crashes in on his world, but while this moment may have been intended to convey a rite of passage in a young life, it comes across as a slightly forced theatrical device – just as with some of the pauses.

As SF Playhouse Artistic Director Bill English said in preshow remarks, this little coffee shop is intended to be a giant mirror that reflects us all. With Baker’s gift of dialogue realistic to person, place and situation, this play has every potential of brilliantly becoming that mirror, one which shows us where and what we don’t want to be: dissociated humanity. It also hints at the footholds we can use to rise above disconnectedness. It is great that Baker’s play cuts close to the bone; my frustration is that it has the potential to pierce the depths of our soul.

photos by Jessica Palopoli

The Aliens
SF Playhouse in San Francisco
scheduled to close on May 5, 2012
for tickets, visit http://www.sfplayhouse.org

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