The Aliens review (Old Fitz, Sydney)

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American playwright Annie Baker’s The Aliens is one of the most gentle and entirely human pieces of theatre written in years. Two best friends in their 30s, Jasper (Jeremy Waters) and KJ (Ben Wood), have been hanging out day after day at the back of a small coffee shop in Vermont. It’s strictly an employee-only area, but these two outcasts have found a place, amongst the milk-crates and garbage bins, to relax, connect and talk about their lives and art.
Jasper is midway through writing his first novel while KJ, who is almost entirely reliant on Jasper, is simply floating through his life, trying to keep things together. Into the alley stumbles a new worker from the coffee shop, the 17-year-old Evan (James Bell), who is full of self-doubt and has no real friends at his school. He immediately admires Jasper and KJ, who decide to take him under their wing and teach him everything they know.
All of this unfolds at a deliberately languid pace — full of fragments of language, abandoned sentences and long, awkward pauses (Baker notes, in her script, that the play should be at least one-third awkward silence). And Baker makes her audience experience that feeling of purposelessness as these characters struggle to express themselves and make connections. But at just two short acts, it shouldn’t be too great a test of anybody’s patience.
The genius of the play doesn’t lie so much in Baker’s ability to realistically capture the rhythms and speech and behavioural patterns of her characters, but in the way she effortlessly, subtly propels her narrative through that. You never get the sense that there’s an omnipotent playwright hovering above, making things happen. Rather, they just seem to happen.
In this beautifully-acted production directed by Craig Baldwin, the rhythms are a little awkward in the opening scene, and Wood establishes his hapless character a little too broadly. But when the performances hit their groove, midway through the first act, it’s intensely moving.
Jeremy Water’s Jasper is seemingly the most headstrong of the bunch, which belies some substantial personal problems. He’s that guy everybody knows who, despite some promise, skill and talent, never managed to rise to his full potential. He is quietly, but surely, trying to prove himself and clings to the approval of the 17-year-old.
Ben Wood’s KJ is full of a desperate sadness and overwhelming fear. He gets more of the comedic moments in the first act, but that’s all flipped on its head sharply in the second.
But it’s James Bell who impresses most in an extraordinarily vulnerable and ultimately heart-breaking performance. At first, it seems he might be over-playing the character’s shyness, but he manages to get so much across in minute movements and hushed lines.
The play works beautifully in the intimate space of the Old Fitz too, thanks to Hugh O’Connor’s detailed set — complete with a painted Coca-Cola sign hovering above — and Ben Brockman’s lighting, which transforms this single setting over and over again.
Baker is influenced by Chekhov and other writers from that vein of ruthless naturalism, but amongst all the desperation and sadness that throws up, she manages to find something quietly optimistic. She’s clearly inspired by the strength of the human spirit and our ability to find hope where there’s only the faintest glimmer of opportunity in a bleak world. If there’s something worth putting onstage, that’s it.
[box]The Aliens is at the Old Fitz Theatre, Sydney until September 19. Featured image by Rupert Reid[/box]

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