The S.F. Playhouse’s quaint 100-seat theater is the perfect setting for Annie Baker’s Obie-winning “The Aliens,” which takes place on a shabby back porch behind a coffee shop in a small town in Vermont. Confined by mismatched fence posts, two grizzly 30-somethings, KJ (Haynes Thigpen) and Jasper (Peter O’Connor), try to expand beyond their dismal surroundings, discussing Bukowski and dissecting “if p then q” logic. When they meet the naive, doughy-faced coffee shop employee, Evan (Brian Miskell), they are united by one character’s dramatic death and are irrevocably changed.
The play opened with a long silence as KJ and Jasper stared out into the audience with affected eyes, submerged in their own thoughts. KJ’s round face crinkled under his matted chestnut beard as he squinted perplexedly. Jasper, with a sharp nose and wiry, muddled red hair, took long drags from his cigarette. KJ shattered the silence with incongruent phrases strung together and sang, “Triple Dimensional Superstar” and “I Am a Martian Master P.” His soft voice and lethargic movements were juxtaposed with Jasper, who released his churning anger over his ex-girlfriend, Andrea, and kicked over a chair.
Although the metaphysical ramblings and girl-problem rants may sound annoying, Baker develops complex characters with anguish-painted pasts that help the audience understand their disillusionment. Both hoodlums are lost and are searching for direction and spiritual satisfaction, filling in the gaps with intellectual conversation, literature and philosophy. Whether or not you share the same life experiences or fully understand the psychedelic mushroom-inspired orations, there is something universal in being unfulfilled by your surroundings.
Jasper and KJ become more endearing when they show moments of morality alongside their questionable ethics. In a frenzied state, Jasper told KJ how he called Andrea a “cunt” on the phone, but quickly showed remorse saying it was the worst five minutes of his life. Later in the show, KJ confessed that he took his young high school girlfriend’s virginity when she was not ready. However, both characters’ virtuous qualities emerge when they talk to Evan. A cross between Jesse Eisenberg and Michael Cera, Brian Miskell masters awkward pauses and nervous “ums” following Jasper’s crude lines like “Someone needs to kill that guy!” and “Did you finger her pussy?”
KJ and Jasper admire Evan’s purity and subtly nurture him to become a more confident man. Over the course of a few weeks, Evan dissolves some of his anxiousness — his eyes widen with energy, while he flattens his pubescent squeaks for a richer, more mature voice. This “coming of age” moment is illustrated at the play’s close, when KJ urged Evan to play the guitar and sing. Evan’s strums became stronger, his voice louder and sturdier as he played a hymn. KJ’s plump, rosy face beamed with watery eyes, as he said, “You’ll go far.”
All three actors exceptionally cradled the silence, using it for crisp comedic effect or to hone their micro-expressions during dramatic lulls, while Baker’s phrases gloriously fall apart. But that’s what makes “The Aliens” so engaging. The dialogue never runs smoothly. The lines are disrupted by uncomfortable pauses, “fucks” and stares, making no sentence trite or emotion artificial.
But Baker’s most striking statement is the instrumental quality of friendship. Trapped in a small town on a dilapidated backyard, three hapless individuals’ warped communication offers catharsis, as they bind together to face their own demons.