SF Playhouse: Annie Baker’s ‘The Aliens’ is a masterpiece and not to be missed

(Charles Kruger)

(Rating: 5/5 Stars » Outstanding)

This reviewer is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

Annie Baker‘s reputation is growing by leaps and bounds. A month ago, Aurora Theatre brought Ms. Baker’s work to the Bay area for the first time with an excellent production of Body Awareness.

Currently, we have the even more excellent The Aliens at San Francisco Playhouse. When this play premiered in New York two years ago, New York Times reviewer Charles Isherwood evoked both Beckett and Chekhov in trying to discuss the playwright, admittedly, he added, at the risk of hyperbole.

But it isn’t hyperbole. Without a doubt, Baker is a highly original talent and a major playwright. Even two days after seeing The Aliens I remain teary not only because of the emotional impact of this wonderful play, but from the sense of thrill and privilege at seeing the early work of a writer who may well be a genius.

The set up of The Aliens is uncomplicated. Two young men, creative slacker types, spend their days hanging out behind a coffee shop in a small New England town. They share lyrics and stories they have written, talk philosophy, and indulge in a common passion for the poetry of Charles Bukowski, whose poem the aliens provides the title of the play.

(from l to r) Peter O'Connor as Jasper, Brian Miskell as Evan and Haynes Thigpen as KJ in SF Playhouse's production of Annie Baker's "The Aliens". Photo by SF Playhouse.

Nothing much seems to happen. They share the space in companionable silence. We learn that KJ (Haynes Thigpen), the songwriter, is a 30-year-old college dropout (philosophy and math major) with a history of psychological problems who lives at home with his loving new-agey mother. Jasper (Peter O’Connor), the aspiring novelist, has recently broken up with his girlfriend. The two young men evidently care for each other.

The exploration of character here is painstakingly slow and gentle and utterly persuasive. Baker takes the extraordinary risk of writing intensive silences into the play—some lasting two or three minutes. The effect is amazing. We seem to be experiencing this relationship in real time, not theatrical time at all. As each tiny revelation of character and insight is given, we are allowed ample time to reflect upon it as though we had actually heard it from a personal friend. These characters are so real, so authentic, so true-to-life that I felt as though the playwright had been eavesdropping on my most private conversations with my nearest intimates.

The dramatic interest is heightened when Evan (Brian Miskell), a high school student who works in the coffee shop, at first tries to evict the two slackers, and then becomes their admiring friend. They teach him about Bukowski, share their creative ambitions, offer him love.

It sounds so simple that I must wonder whether I am communicating just how extraordinary it all is.

The three actors are close to perfection. They have the difficult task of filling lengthy silences, repeatedly. There is no solution to this acting problem by acting. The only way is to simply be. The line between actor and character is as invisible here as I’ve ever seen on the stage.

All of this is beautifully controlled and nuanced by Lila Neugebauer‘s flawless direction, and supported by excellent technical components, in particular Bill English‘s realistically detailed set. (Mr. English is also the artistic director of SF Playhouse.)

I have told my closest friends that they must see this play, even if I have to drag them myself—even if I have to purchase their tickets.

I can’t offer to purchase your tickets, but I urge you to see this play. You will remember it forever.

The Aliens continues at the San Francisco Playhouse through May 5th. For further information, click here.

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The Aliens by Annie Baker, produced by the SF Playhouse. Director: Lila Neugebauer. Set Design: Bill English. Light Design: Michael Palumbo. Sound Design: Brendan Aanes. Costume Design: Christine Crook. Original music & lyrics by Michael Chernus, Patch Darragh and Erie Gann.

Evan: Brian Miskell. Jasper: Peter O’Connor. KJ: Haynes Thigpen.

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