The characters in Annie Baker’s play “The Aliens” take a lot of time to think before they speak. This makes Studio Theatre’s production a bad choice for the sick or the hungry, as every cough and crinkling candy wrapper will go noticed during the long stretches of ruminative quiet.
“The Aliens,” which draws its title from gritty ’70s outsider poet Charles Bukowski’s work of the same name, follows two dropouts, KJ (Scot McKenzie) and Jasper (Peter O’Connor). “Follows” may be overstating it, since they spend most of their time on the back stoop of a Vermont cafe. Jasper reads from his novel, KJ sings his original songs, and they interact with Evan (Brian Miskell), a high-school student working in the cafe who lets them hang out despite his misgivings. KJ and Jasper spend much of their time just sitting, contemplating life and the universe. Then something happens that really stops everyone in their tracks.
“So many of the play’s most fascinating transformations go on in silence,” director Lila Neugebauer says. “It’s an odd, mystical exchange that sometimes begins as weird or awkward for people. But it has the capacity to transform into a meditative experience over the course of the play.”
Neugebauer says the radical use of stillness is meticulously notated in the playwright’s stage direction.
“There’s a distinction between a pause and a silence and a long silence and a very long silence,” she says. “And then there are moments when she writes ‘after a while’ or ‘eventually,’ and you’re left to interpret what that means.” Some silences have an obvious purpose — when KJ doctors his herbal tea with psilocybin mushrooms, it’s a lengthy operation that requires total concentration — and some just hang there while the characters try to figure out what they want to say or do.
All that quiet can be too much for some. At a recent performance, during a lengthy silence early in the play, a woman in the front row exclaimed, “This is like watching paint dry!” The quiet went from contemplative to awkward. Apparently, she gave it more thought, though; she was still in her seat after the intermission.
A Band to Be Named Later: KJ and Jasper have formed a band but can’t agree on a name. Jasper likes the Aliens, but KJ thinks that’s too boring. Other possibilities they come up with include Nefarious Hookah, the Limp Handshakes, the JK/KJ Experience, the JK/KJ Experiment and Hieronymus Blast. Like life’s biggest questions, this one goes unresolved.Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW; through Dec. 23, $35-$72; 202-332-3300. (Dupont Circle)