There aren’t any UFOs or three-fingered ETs to be found onstage at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre, where The Aliens, Annie Baker’s newest play, has its world premiere. Instead, we get one insecure teen and two rough-and-tumble slackers, all of whom stand in marked contrast to the supremely assured, delicately nuanced work in which they appear. As its very name informs, Rattlestick is a venue interested in nurturing the works of talented playwrights, both new and enduring. Take, for example, Noah Haidle’s Rag and Bone from several seasons ago, Lucy Thurber’s Killers and Other Family and Mando Alvarado’s Post No Bills from this fall. These are thoughtful, enthralling works whose only shared trait is how distinct they are from one another.
Aliens fits right in line with its predecessors, thanks, of course, in large part to Baker, a keen observer of human folly. She eyes minutiae with a magnifying glass, making the small seem not just obvious but vital. This was a skill apparent in her debut, Body Awareness, as well in Playwrights Horizons’ Circle Mirror Transformation, one of this season’s unquestionable triumphs.
In addition to its cerebral observations, Baker’s newest play shares some more physical attributes with Circle. First and foremost, Sam Gold directs both, and why break what’s already fixed? The two are a miracle team. Also, on a surface level, both plays occur in small-town Vermont. While the characters of Circle, however, signed up for the community center acting class in which they all met, the three leads of Aliens end up together behind a local coffee house simply by staying put; they have nowhere else to be.
KJ (Michael Chernus) and Jasper (Erin Gann) are two thirtysomething ne’er-do-wells who have never managed to stray far from their hometown for long. KJ went off to college, but dropped out early on due to a psychological problem. They seem to pass all of their time in their hangout, with KJ singing songs and Jasper writing his first novel.
The two balk at first when Evan (Dane DeHaan), a high schooler newly employed at the coffee house, asks them to leave and take their vagrancy elsewhere. But if Evan doesn’t get the response he wanted, he gets something greater: Jasper and KJ gradually initiate him into their tiny fraternity. All three, it turns out, have been rejected from the world at large, making them the “aliens” of the title (The Aliens was also a potential band name once upon a time for Jasper and KJ.)
Gold knows just how to move his play along while still letting it breathe, making a comfortable rhythm out of Baker’s text. The fascination of Aliens comes from just watching these people be. They are in no hurry to get anywhere. Watching them onstage reminds one of sitting around on a lazy day with friends; that much of their interaction feels inconsequential does not mean it is boring. In fact, the characters’ stasis makes for a rich experience. Jasper and KJ feel that the world doesn’t get them, and have accepted it. Evan, then, is the play’s great hope since he is on the precipice of discovering just what the world might have in store for him.
One key element that adds to the rhythm in these scenes is silence. Baker has her three men-children not speaking almost as much as she provides them dialogue. Far from creating dead air, this adds to the authenticity. It is a choice that makes total sense; when friends know each other as well as Jasper and KJ, there isn’t a whole lot to say. (KJ’s drug use also explains his often muted effect.) We get as much insight into their friendship from what they don’t say as from what they do. Conversely, Evan’s natural hesitations and quiescence only emphasize his awkwardness as an outsider.
Baker’s road could be a tricky one to navigate if not for her immensely talented cast, who go to great effort in order to create Aliens’ effortless feel. Chernus synthesizes a ton of internal emotions in a physically disciplined performance that lets the audience glimpse some of the demons that taunt him. A second-act scene in which he repeats the word “ladder” as a calming ritual should be the stuff of legend. And Gann is every bit his match as his more charged friend; Japer channels his passions into his novel, though he doubts it may ever be heard (his protagonist remains nameless).
Evan ends up being the fulcrum on which Baker’s subtle action pivots. DeHaan is a phenom, suggesting how badly Evan needs to belong somewhere without ever showing it outright. Evan is a turtle emerging from his shell for the first time, and the marvel of DeHaan’s performances is how he chronicles this emergence in such small, believable gradients. There isn’t a false note to be found, particularly in the moments in which he watches and reacts to the things Jasper and KJ tell him throughout the show.
Baker’s ability to see and hear people as they are has allowed her to create characters that are compellingly real. I went in to see Aliens and I left feeling as though I had made several friends.