The Aliens: A New Play Invades Alliance Theatre

"You may not believe it, but there are people who go through life with very little friction or distress."

This is how Charles Bukowski opens "The Aliens," a poem that succinctly captures the mindset of the world's tortured, anxious, depressed throngs. The renegade poet seems to suggest that these men and women (but mostly men) on the fringes of contentment are not society's outliers but its sputtering engine. The apocryphal happy people are the aliens, discussed but scarcely encountered.

Two guys cut from the Bukowski cloth populate Annie Baker's award-winning play The Aliens, receiving its regional premiere from Alliance Theatre. Jasper (Daniel Gil) and KJ (Carlos Alayeto), scruffy 20-somethings (or 30s?) in thrift-shop couture, have each other but nothing else. One dropped out of college; the other stopped at high school. They used to sort of be in a band but, tellingly, couldn't decide on a name ("The Aliens," in homage to Bukowski, was one of many possibilities). Geniuses in their own minds, they wile away their days and nights loitering behind a coffeehouse in their stillborn Vermont town, surrounded by weeds, garbage cans, janitorial equipment, and milk crates. It's a staff area, they're told; they're not supposed to be there, but they have nowhere else to go.

They open the play in frozen limbo, as if posing for a painting about burnt-out youth: Alayeto sits Indian-style atop the patio's lone table, his eyes glazed over, contemplating the universe or pondering lyrics for a song he'll never record; Gil leans next to him, stretching his legs on a plastic chair, a cigarette dangling idly from his lips, like the Marlboro Man in exile.

The Aliens could accurately be deemed a play about nothing.

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Lethargy hangs in the air as thick as San Francisco smog. Conversations begin and gracelessly peter out. We learn that KJ is on medication and once suffered a mental breakdown. Jasper has battled his own demons since his girlfriend left him: "I actually feel bad for her!" he tells KJ, and really himself. The line is delivered in a manner that is perfectly unconvincing. But Jasper is writing a novel, a great American beat epic, and the breakup is helping him discover its direction. KJ sings a few more song lyrics and tries to entice a sneeze by staring at the sun.

And so it goes, or rather doesn't go. Mirroring the slackaday inaction of its protagonists, The Aliens could accurately be deemed a play about nothing. Director Adalberto Acevedo's cast conveys the illusion of nonacting, and he paces the play like a 45 rpm record played at 33 1/3. Patient audiences will have plenty of opportunity to savor Baker's tumbleweed naturalism, the way her characters' selective aphasia takes them on linguistic roads to nowhere. Jasper describes his ex-girlfriend's new love interest as "the tall guy — with the hair," and it's enough for us to visualize him. Asked about his first serious relationship, KJ pauses for several beats before responding, "I'm like not really interested in serious shit or whatever."

The presence of a third character, who initially functions as a background foil, gradually challenges Jasper and KJ's status quo. Evan (Kristian Bikic) is a bright, easily intimidated, straight-arrow 17-year-old with a summer job at the coffee shop. He'll head to college next year to pursue a future that has eluded the play's shiftless elders. But he looks up to them nonetheless, finding beauty in Jasper's pretentious fiction. The first act climaxes during Fourth of July fireworks; Evan enjoys the light show with his new friends, but the scene feels like the end of an era, a premonition that's borne out in the tragic second act.

If there's a problem with the casting, it's that the actors look too close in age, so that Bikic seems less a sponge-like protégé to wayward mentors than a fellow traveler in a similar, if transient, life rut. There can be no fault in the performances, however: Acevedo's invisible hand expertly guides his cast through a singular vision and a clear understanding of Baker's alternately hyper- and hypo-realism.

Gil's enthusiastic excerpts from Jasper's facile novel, performed from his tabletop perch with the passion and physicality of a slam poet, conjure the lovable pathos his character needs. Alayeto plays KJ as Jasper's manic-depressive second fiddle, vacant when medicated and bristling with infantile spontaneity when not. His greatest moment is his character's understated catharsis, inspired by a childhood memory, in which he utters the word "ladder" enough times for the two-syllable noun to encompass a spectrum of intonations, meanings, and symbols (the two ladders in Acevedo's set design add a nice visual rhyme). Bikic finds at least two or three archetypes within Evan, cementing his character's arc from nervous boy to world-weary man as much through movement, gesture, and posture as through words.

The Aliens runs longer than you'd expect, partly because the silences are so voluminous. Indeed, the chasms between the lines are more concrete than the characters' fumbling attempts at communication. It's possible that not everyone in the audience will believe that its paradigm-shifting surprise will justify the wait. But thanks to a production so palpably accurate, this intellectually rich portrait of a lost generation will surely connect with the disaffected terrestrials among us — and provide lucky aliens with a potent glimpse of a lonely planet.

The Aliens
Through October 4 at Alliance Theatre at Barry University, 11300 NE Second Ave., Miami; 786-587-0372, Tickets cost $15 to $30.