In ‘The Aliens,’ silence speaks volumes


Scot McKenzie and Brian Miskell in “The Aliens” at Studio Theatre. (Carol Pratt/Carol Pratt)
November 20, 2012

Evan, the impressionable high school kid played to poker-faced perfection by Brian Miskell in Annie Baker’s terrifically still-watered “The Aliens,” is the shy teenager in all of us, the one who stands off to the side and waits and watches and waits some more to be taken notice of, to be deemed acceptable.

Observing closely and patiently also happens to be what the playwright has in mind for her audience in this offbeat, slow-cooking and ultimately touching character-driven drama, set in the back alley of American life amid the strays and the damaged misfits.

Accorded a pristinely acted production at Studio Theatre under the guidance of director Lila Neugebauer, “The Aliens” is another of the slice-of-humdrum-Vermont-days plays from Baker, author of the gently satirical “Circle Mirror Transformation,” done at Studio two years ago. “The Aliens” is a drier, and in some ways more fully realized, work, as it steeps itself with more compassion and insight in the scarred psyches of ordinary people who don’t give up their secrets readily.

Baker is the anti-Sorkin. Her characters do not speak in witty diatribes or confessional arias. Sometimes they don’t talk at all. The play, here performed on Daniel Conway’s superbly realistic rendering of the rear yard of an undistinguished coffee shop in fictional Shirley, Vt., begins in a veritable vacuum. Two scruffy guys, KJ and Jasper, portrayed so authentically by Scot McKenzie and Peter O’Connor that you’d swear you could pick them out in vagrancy mug shots, are seated at a picnic table, staring into the distance.

Life these days is so filled with ambient noise that the stretches of silence in “The Aliens” are unnerving. Just as you might be discomfited by an elevator ride up a skyscraper with a stranger — or the blank stares of say, a therapist — the absence of speech in the play can trigger some anxiety: Funny how dependent we are on the verbal cues plays have conditioned us to expect.

But topics of conversation have shrunk in the lives of KJ and Jasper, friends who at age 30 or so have found no outlet for their half-formed goals or marginal artistic impulses.

As they eventually will relate to Evan — who at first emerges nervously from the back door of the cafe to shoo them away — KJ is a college dropout with psychological issues; a panic attack occurs in Act 2. And Jasper is a drifter whose latest unlikely brainstorm is that he is a novelist.

As good as both O’Connor and McKenzie are — the latter executing a difficult and astonishing portrayal of KJ’s self-pacification with the endless repetition of a single word — your eyes tend to shift to the visage of Miskell’s Evan. He seems mesmerized by the older men.

The play pivots on the question of how mature Evan truly is: Whether the worship he comes to feel after a few encounters with KJ and Jasper is just a phase or if Evan’s fascination is a symptom of some deeper affinity for the alienated life. (The play’s wholly earned title comes from one of the many discarded names of KJ’s and Jasper’s failed band, a recitation that makes for a funny litany.)

McKenzie, far too infrequently employed on Washington stages — I’ve admired his work since his memorable turn in 2006 as the mob boss in now-defunct Catalyst Theater’s “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui” — here with wild hair affects a glazed expression and Mona Lisa grin to convey KJ’s distracted benevolence. Balancing himself against a wall of the restaurant, straddling a porch railing with legs dangling over each side, he stares smilingly out at us, like a burned-out Cheshire Cat.

Neugebauer shepherds her actors expertly; the pauses are some of the longest I ever remember experiencing in a play. The acting makes them worth it. And it’s aided by the physical environment that Conway and the rest of the design team creates, one that so securely envelops us in Baker’s world that you believe in everything, down to the cracks in the asphalt beneath the actors’ feet.

The Aliens

by Annie Baker. Directed by Lila Neugebauer. Set, Daniel Conway; lighting, Matthew Richards; costumes, Meghan Raham; sound, Stowe Nelson; dramaturgy, Lauren Halvorsen. About 2 hours 20 minutes. Through Dec. 23 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Visit www.studiotheatre.org or call 202-332-3300.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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