Playwright Annie Baker cherishes silences and likes alienated characters. In the first play of her “Shirley, Vermont” trilogy (“Body Awareness”), the topic is body image (and women know how alienating that can be); the second (“Circle Mirror Transformation”) is about a group of people in a community acting class who need to get in touch with their real natures.
The last in the “Shirley” series – “The Aliens” – plays through Dec. 12 at ion theatre in Hillcrest.
Here, we meet 30ish slackers KJ (Brian Butler) and Jasper (Reed Willard), who hang out in the back outside area of a coffee house, where the dumpsters are. KJ is a college dropout who had a double major in math and philosophy before a breakdown ended that quest. He lives with his mom and needs his meds. He likes to sing seemingly off-the-cuff songs about geometry and killer frogs.
Jasper, a high school dropout, spends a lot of time and energy fuming about the girlfriend who left him for a guy named Sprocket who makes his own pants. Jasper is a chain smoker and is writing a novel.
The third character is 17-year-old coffee house employee Evan (Tyler Oakley), a high school student on his first work shift, who comes out to tell KJ and Jasper this space is only for staff and they need to move inside. They ignore him, claiming they have permission from another employee.
The three start to warm up to each other when Evan mentions he’s going off to work at a Jewish music camp for a week, teaching kids to play piano and guitar. This brings the revelation that KJ and Jasper had a band for a while, but they couldn’t decide on a name. A few they tried: Limp Handshakes, Electric Hookah, Dharma Machine – and the Charles Bukowski-inspired The Aliens, from which the play gets its title.
With Baker’s plays, audience participation is required: you have to hear what’s happening in the silences, which are scripted, frequent and can seem maddening (or simply soporific). (Baker specifies that one-third to half of this play should be silence.) I confess to some difficulty in this department, which is one reason Baker’s plays aren’t on my list of favorites.
These three characters are a bit easier to grasp – two chronological adults with wasted (or at least unrealized) potential and one on the brink of the kind of decisions that will change his life.
Directors Claudio Raygoza and Glenn Paris have found the right actors for these unusual parts, and obviously given them what they need to interpret these characters.
Reed Willard captures Jasper’s monumental anger without neglecting the world
of unexpressed hurt underneath; I wanted to drag him off to counseling if only to free him to work from the genius he claims (but doesn’t seem to believe) rather than the hurt he denies.
Butler captures the aimlessness and disappointment that may have led to KJ’s alienation and the breakdown and that now keeps him sipping psilocybin tea (shrooms) and calling himself a “street urchin.”
But the find here is Evan, the “blank slate” of the three, terminally shy and tentative (though hopeful), who calls his lack of experience with girls “humiliating.” Oakley, a graduate of UCSD’s theatre program, made my heart ache with his spot-on portrayal.
Baker’s plays are atypical and not for all tastes, but if you’re up for the style, ion has another winner in “The Aliens.”
“The Aliens” plays through December 12, 2015 at ion theatre’s BLKBOX, 3704 Sixth Avenue in Hillcrest.
Wednesday at 7p.m., Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 4 and 8 pm
(No perfs Wed-Fri of Thanksgiving Week)
Tickets: (619) 600-5020 or www.iontheatre.com