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Thought provoking THE ALIENS at Dobama

Roy Berko
(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)

Annie Baker, the 33-year old multi award winning author of THE ALIENS, now in production at Dobama, is considered by many theatre and literary critics to be one of the freshest and most talented dramatists of this decade.  Baker, whose style mirrors that of Anton Chekov, one of the leaders of 20th century modernism, writes realistic characters who emerge in lines that lend themselves to subtle and thoughtful presentation.

Her style is that of a slow pace, not choppy, but insightful, with pauses for thought, and silence for introspection.  Lighting and smoking of a cigarette, sitting and looking at nothing, strumming a guitar, are all devices to allow for meaningful thought.  She develops ideas through subtlety, not screaming or excessive drama.

Baker has written five praised plays in 6 years.  She has won Obie and Drama Desk Awards.

THE ALIENS, like most of Baker’s works is more character study than plot driven.  The concept centers on a pair of thirty-somethings who seem to exert little effort to move through life.  KJ, who still lives with his mother, is a college dropout, has had psychological problems and needs to stay on his meds.  Jasper graduated from high school and has been sliding along since then.

The duo are “slacker dudes,” who find little of society to their liking, but don’t seemingly have the energy to take action.  Both are unshaven, probably because the act of shaving might require more energy and focus than they can expend.  They aren’t lazy, just haven’t found anything to motivate them.

They sit on a park bench or old plastic patio chairs behind a coffee shop, choosing not to interact with the patrons inside, sharing random thoughts only with each other.  The duo commiserate about music, philosophy and Charles Bukowski, a confessional poet, who is considered the father of Dirty Realism.

Like Bukowski, they think about writing, alcohol, relationships with women and the drudgery of work.  KJ periodically scribbles ideas for a book.  They formed a band, couldn’t agree on a name, kind of settling on the name, “The Aliens,’ but are still pondering that “almost” decision.  Until they do so, they can’t act.  They are aliens, not in the other world sense, but in their being alienated.

Into their private world enters Evan, a high school junior who is a new employee at the coffee shop.  Evan, a shy, sexually and unworldly naïve youth with the teenage angst.  Slowly, they decide to teach him all about the world from their perspective as they adopt him as their “club mascot.” He becomes so attached to them that they are labeled by him as, “my best friends.”

Dobama’s production, under the focused direction of Nathan Motta, is completely true to Baker’s script and insights.

As the Artistic Director of Dobama said in his opening night, before-curtain talk, “This is a delicate piece.”  “Not a word is wasted.” “ It’s effect not only centers on what is said, but how it is said.” “This is a script filled with compassionate meditation.”  “From one-third to one-half of the stage time is filled with silence.”  “The audience has to work, you can’t just sit passively.”  “These are two isolated outcast thirty-year olds that are identifiable to people their age…we [the Silent Generation, also referred to as Generation Z] all know guys like this.”

Alexander V. Thompson (KJ), Matt O’Shea (Jasper), and Joseph Dunn (Evan) are each superb.  They create real people, not portraying the characters, but experiencing these guys.  It would be difficult to cast a more perfect trio.  They assume the needed pace with a fervor, making sure that each needed pause, each over-extended act of lighting a cigarette, each introspective glance, is perfectly perceived.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: In spite of the quality of writing and superb production, THE ALIENS is not a play for everyone.  As Motta said, “experiencing this play takes work.  It is not exciting.”  There is  only one incident of high drama.  The laughs are few.  (It was interesting that on opening night, the only emotional reactions came from a scattering of Generation Z’ers.)  If you attend, let the play simmer in your head and see what emerges.  It’s worth the effort.

THE ALIENS runs through February 23, 2014 at Dobama Theatre.  Call 216-932-3396 or for tickets.