Slackers struggle toward genius in 'Aliens' 

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During the second act of Annie Baker’s delicate, mesmerizing and almost hyper-realistic three-hander “The Aliens” onstage at SF Playhouse, KJ — a 30-something college dropout with an undisclosed mental condition who requires meds — obsessively repeats the word “ladder.”

He repeats it too many times to count. He repeats it steadily, seemingly endlessly. He repeats it mostly monotonically, hypnotically, but at one point suddenly infuses the word with deep psychic pain.

That brief scene, like others throughout this play, tests viewers’ willingness to immerse themselves in Baker’s singular world.

It’s a testament to SF Playhouse’s production — directed with exquisite attention to detail by Lila Neugebauer — that Baker’s deep and uncompromising empathy for all three of her characters is so fully, so elegantly realized.

KJ (Haynes Thigpen, comically and impulsively off-kilter) and his best friend, Jasper (a low-key, slightly unsettling Peter O’Connor), are a pair of bearded slackers who hang out on the back patio of a low-end cafe in small-town Vermont (excellent set by Bill English, complete with Dumpster, recycling bin, battered picnic table and more).

Both men fancy themselves creative geniuses. KJ writes songs and poems (some of which he sings and recites in an obsessive way, with music and lyrics by Michael Chernus, Patch Darragh and Erin Gann).

Jasper, who’s just been dumped by his girlfriend, is writing what he hopes is the Great American Novel, based on his own unattainable dreams. (The play’s title refers to one of the many, many names they gave their erstwhile garage band.)

Things shift when the awkward and lonely teenage boy who works in the cafe starts to hang out with them on his five-minute breaks.

The kid (an almost uncannily perfect Brian Miskell), who’s about to leave for a week as a counselor-in-training at a Jewish music camp (“band camp,” KJ and Jasper scoff), is clearly meant for the kind of future that the two older men can only dream of.

The way all three interact — and ultimately affect one another over the course of a few summer days and nights — evolves slowly and beautifully.

Baker has a light, glancing touch. She demands that an audience submit to periods of silence lengthy enough to make Harold Pinter’s plays seem speedy.

In this production, the three actors fill those silences with such aching truthfulness that you can almost see inside their hearts. This is an unusual — and unusually rewarding — theatrical journey.

About The Author

Jean Schiffman

Jean Schiffman

Jean Schiffman is a freelance arts writer specializing in theatre. Some of her short stories and personal essays have been published in newspapers and small literary magazines. She is an occasional book copy editor and also has a background in stage acting. Her book “The Working Actor’s Toolkit” was published... more
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