On its surface, The Aliens is a simple story about best friends stagnating on the cusp of adulthood. But the characters in this quiet, methodical play from Upstart Productions dig deeper as they inhabit the Margo Jones Theatre, breathing just inches away from audience members.
Thanks to Annie Baker's script, the characters have voices anyone can recognize. These twentysomethings are stunted adults whose lives didn't turn out the way they expected.
The equally troubled KJ (Tim Maher) and Jasper (Joey Folsom) meet every day in the alley behind a coffee shop. When new coffee shop employee Evan (Justin Duncan) discovers them loitering behind the building, Jasper is anxious, and KJ is stoned.
In Evan, they find a new listener to tell about ex-girlfriends; the band they started; the novel Jasper is writing; and their favorite poet, Charles Bukowski.
As important as the dialogue, however, is the silence, which director David Densen uses as an inextricable part of the narrative. The show lulls the audience into a state of complicity; any initial disgust with the two deadbeats who hang out by trash cans is suspended with Jasper's first nervous cigarette flick.
This play could become whiny, but it is performed with gravitas and the realism that Baker's pieces demand. Maher plays KJ with a lovable, goofy grin, a perfect foil to Folsom’s cynical Kerouacian Jasper. As the impressionable high school student Evan, Duncan remains wide-eyed and hopeful, even as the play grows darker in act two.
The Aliens also presents fierce commentary about the state of America as a nation. Set on July 4th, Evan brings up the bizarre tradition of celebrating America's birthday by collectively watching things blow up in the sky. But when the three gather in the alley to sing songs rather than participating in the festivities, they find themselves looking up at the fireworks.
The Aliens is littered with rich moments like this that speak to much more than a generation caught in "the in between state." And Upstart Productions mines these moments for stage gold.
The Aliens runs through August 31.