Friday, April 23, 2010

Aliens among us

Overpraise can hurt a playwright's career as surely as bad reviews, or no reviews at all. So I'm feeling a little protective of Annie Baker this morning. Yes, her new play, The Aliens, is good. But anyone who dashes off to the Rattlestick to see it based on Charles Isherwood's New York Times rave this morning is likely to come away unfulfilled. "At the risk of appearing hyperbolic, I’ll go so far as to say there is something distinctly Chekhovian in the way her writing accrues weight and meaning simply through compassionate, truthful observation," Isherwood writes--and, yes, it's risky.

On this we agree: Baker is a good playwright. Her Body Awareness was an unexpected delight when I encountered it at Atlantic Stage 2 a couple of seasons back (I went primarily because the somewhat MIA JoBeth Williams popped up in it) and Circle Mirror Transformation was a justified sensation at Playwrights Horizons last season. The Aliens is something of a pullback from those plays, putting me more in mind of of one of Richard Linklater's indie films. The focus here is on three men; more to the point, three guys, one adolescent, Evan (Dane DeHaan, pictured at left), and two adolescent of the overgrown variety (Erin Gann, center, as Jasper, and Michael Chernus, right, as K J). They meet in the backyard of the Vermont coffeehouse where Evan works and Jasper and K J loaf. Not a lot happens, at least, not initially--and the play flirts with a distinctly un-Chekhovian tedium as Evan can barely get a word out as the self-proclaimed "geniuses" in his midst talk about Charles Bukowski, play music (they were in a group called The Aliens, or maybe The Frogmen, or maybe something else), and bait him.

I was however confident that Baker, working once more with Circle Mirror director Sam Gold, was purposefully drawing us into something more purposeful, and I wasn't wrong. By the end of the first act, Evan has made his bones and is part of the group, as the three steer clear of an uncool Fourth of July celebration; in the second, the dynamic has changed dramatically, in a way that's not easily comprehended but that Baker makes comprehensible (yes, there's a crater-sized spoiler that I'm laboring to conceal). A show that was doodling along suddenly, forcefully grows up. The first act is about how cool it is for a young person to be accepted by older, worldwise friends, no matter that we may think of them as, well, losers; the second is about how to cope with the rupture of that bond, and the difficulty of moving on. Worthy subjects, movingly enacted (Chernus has a great Falstaff in him) and richly designed in an intimate space (Bart Fasbender's audio suggests quite a fireworks display, one that can't help but to shake the characters from their usual disdain)--but we do such a low-key work a disservice by loving it out of proportion. I mean, hey, what are trying to do here, drive Baker to movies and TV? Let's keep her to ourselves for a while.

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