Act I of Annie Baker's "The Aliens" opens with two blank stares. Two slackers sit on a picnic bench in back of a restaurant. One stares off into space. The other lights a cigarette and smokes it, rises to stub it out, sits back down and lights another. Nothing is said.
By the opening of Act II we are down to one slacker.
But in the meantime a third character has entered. Evan (Brian Miskell) is ten years younger than KJ (Haynes Thigpen) and Jasper (Peter O'Connor). He is still in High School but has a job working at the restaurant. Each time he walks out in the back to put a bag of garbage into the dumpster, he runs into Jasper and KJ, who appear to spend all their waking hours on the bench. In the end, Evan's immaturity and need for friendship turns out to be the spark that ignites KJ and Jasper. They become, in a spaced-out way, his mentors.
We know these three young men. Annie Baker must know them too, as must Bill English, who designed a set so realistic we even see the mouse droppings on top of the old electric meter hanging on the weathered siding. Clearly, we've all been here before, though not everyone has had the idea to take the tea out of tea bags, fill them with psilocybin and then brew 'shroom tea.
Things might end well. It's hard to say. If it's a coming of age story for Evan, then yes they do. If it's a nothing-will-ever-change story about KJ, or a commentary about wasted lives, then no they don't. You will not be enlightened but you will love the entire journey. "The Aliens" is the work of a fascinating playwright in the prime of her career.
RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "The Aliens" Three Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. The BANGLE is for director Lila Neugebauer, who was able to keep a play moving forward that has more long silences than any show we've seen in years. The silences are perhaps the best part of the whole show -- the actors get to show us by means of their faces, their hands, their body language and their craft just how they are feeling inside. Jasper is furious. KJ is frightened. And Evan is taking it all in. They are excellent actors but it takes a strong director to allow that magic to take place.
Playwright Baker has only recently closed her "Body Awareness" across the bay. It was a brilliant work. "The Aliens" could scarcely be more different. This is the sign of a playwright to keep our eyes on. Like KJ, Annie Baker sparkles.
San Francisco Playhouse
533 Sutter Street, San Francisco
Through May 5