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BWW Review: Bravura Performances and Direction of Annie Baker's THE ALIENS at Stageworks

"Now I remember why I haven't gone anywhere in months. I'm not even in the same universe as those creatures back there. I might as well be from another planet..." --Seymour in "Ghost World"

"There are no rules, man." --KJ in Annie Baker's THE ALIENS

When it comes to quirkiness, I'm all in. I love it when a play honestly captures the messiness of life, when words aren't enough and pauses mean more than any monologue could. Sometimes this concept can fall flat, especially if you don't get the right actors for the right shows. In Harold Pinter Land, sometimes the patented Pinter pauses can become strained, artificial. I once saw a show in L.A. that was all pauses, and it was so poorly paced that it seemed to last a very dull lifetime. But in award-winning playwright Annie Baker's world, these pauses and moments of awkward beauty become a thing to cherish. Especially if you cast actors who get it. And in Stageworks' wonderfully quirky, sometimes sad, oftentimes funny, and always mesmerizing production of Baker's THE ALIENS, the three actors in the show--Chris Jackson, Derrick Phillips, and Franco Colon--certainly get it.

I recall very few plays that I've loved in quite the same manner. We feel protective of it afterwards, the way we do that one outsider friend that nobody else seems to quite understand. These are characters alienated from the world, hence the title of the play (yes, the name "The Aliens" was also what one of the characters wanted to call their old garage band, but its meaning obviously runs deeper than that). These guys are classic outcasts, who think and live outside the box (literally), and we celebrate the entertaining, quietly crazed and at times heartbreaking time we spend with them.

Although THE ALIENS is quite different than Ghost World (the graphic novel and the movie), I love it in a similar way. In Ghost World, we follow two outsider teenage girls who befriend an older geeky jazz enthusiast, Seymour, who just can't connect with mainstream society. THE ALIENS follows two thirty-something neo-bohemian slackers who hang out behind a hip (but not too hip) Vermont coffee shop; they are so detached from society that they can't even bother to sit inside. They chain-smoke, occasionally sing, and spew Charles Bukowski quotations ("the laureate of lowlifes," as he was once tagged). Jasper is a high school dropout turned would-be novelist, and KJ quit college and just sort of lies around (oftentimes on top of a picnic table) in and out of an odd alcohol or drug torpor. There is a third character, Evan, an outsider in his own right (he may be a 17-year-old employee at the coffee shop, but he's also a band geek); he is awed by his encounters with Jasper and KJ.

I have seen Chris Jackson in numerous shows over the years. He was a serviceable leading man in Hamlet and as Montag in Fahrenheit 451, strong in supporting roles at freeFall (Harvey, Peter and the Starcatcher), and overshadowed in American Stage's Laughter on the 23rd Floor. As Jasper, he gives the best performance of his life. Tall and mustachioed, he looks like a classic rock star, a grunge revolutionary with greasy shoulder-length hair. Baker's infamous pauses fit Jackson's acting style perfectly, and he seems so naturally hip, smoking at all times, playing guitar, whip-smart enough to do everything in life but choosing not to, sort of like The Motorcycle Boy without the motorcycle. You understand why young Evan is in awe of him.

Derrick Phillips as KJ has also never been better. Although miscast in The Children's Hour at Tampa Rep, he has given us plenty of strong turns since, especially in Silent Sky, Lebensraum, and The Pitmen Painters. But they are all dwarfed by his work here. Sometimes his manic rants reminded me of Rory Cochrane as Slater in Dazed and Confused, only more fevered. (In his wool cap, he looks a lot like Ed Harris in The Hours.) But the moment in Act 2 when he utters a single word for seemingly minutes appears at first to be a playwright's game, clever but going nowhere, quirk for the sake of quirkiness. But obviously that's not the case. Baker's brilliance is matched by Phillips' work. When we realize what is actually happening, it's incredibly moving. The moment turns into a major plot point, and the emotional toll of it is given life by Phillips' bravura turn.

My favorite performance belongs to Franco Colon as the elfin Evan, whose underplayed facial reactions become works of art in and of themselves. It is a mostly reactive role, and that's what works so swimmingly. Colon doesn't rush; he's an actor who fits in the character's awkward skin brilliantly. He knows that every nuance matters. He squeezes out so much humor from the part without trying, never pushing for laughs. And the contrast between his keenness for the newness around him and the more jaded Jasper and KJ is quite well done here.

It's been a long time since I've experienced a show that is devoid of a single weak or even somewhat weaker performance.

Much of the kudos belong to David Jenkins, Jobsite's artistic director who traveled to nearby Stageworks to direct THE ALIENS. He has helped mold his fine actors to breathe life into Baker's words and pauses. The staging is intricate, beautifully realized. His style and his sensibility obviously work wonders with Baker's worldview.

Frank Chavez's set is quite a treat; we really feel like we are behind this coffee house, right down to the leaves framing the back porch area. Aided marvelously by Jo Averill-Snell's lighting design, it's exquisite work, as are Chavez's costumes (simple, perfectly suited for each character, especially KJ's cap, which he wears all the time, even in July).

THE ALIENS is a play that must be seen, experienced, even debated. That's what all good art does. Baker understands how people talk and, more importantly, how they don't talk. The pauses, specified in the script, never come across as forced or phony. What starts out as a play that seems to be, at best, a casual, lightweight slice of slacker life slowly unveils itself as a deep, incisive look at our world and those who exist on the fringes of it. It's quite powerful. Even if you don't have the same love affair with it that I experienced, it's worth seeing to witness a brilliant young playwright and three brilliantly directed young performers all at the top of their game.

THE ALIENS at Stageworks plays until February 26th. For tickets, please call (813) 374-2416.

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From This Author Peter Nason