I had high hopes for The Aliens. The Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company has been doing terrific work lately, and The Aliens had received rapturous reviews all over the country, reviews that floated the names Beckett and Chekhov. Playwright Annie Baker won a Pulitzer for The Flick last year, and I loved her Circle Mirror Transformation when I saw it in Denver a while back. So I hate to admit that this production had very little impact on me as I watched, and slid out of my mind completely once it was over. I didn't empathize with the characters, but I didn't dislike them, either. I had no objection to the evening's slow pace -- but I did think it implied significant themes and meaningful undercurrents, something to occupy the mind, heart and brain, and if these things were there, I couldn't find them. Believe me, I tried to enter the play's reality, respected the long, long pauses (as anyone whose inner world has been partly shaped by Beckett must), and pressed my fingernails into my palms now and then so as not to doze off.
The play concerns two thirty-something drifters, Jasper and KJ, who spend their time among the smelly trash cans in a small patch of ground behind a coffee shop. They're Beats rather than hippies, passive loiterers, outsiders, admirers of poet Charles Bukowski, musicians too drifty and drug-addled to actually put any work into making music -- though they have spent time thinking up possible names for their band, including Hieronymous Blast, Pillowface, the Limp Handshakes and the Aliens. Evan, a teenager who works at the coffee shop, comes out to empty the garbage and tell them that management wants them to move on. They don't. Over time, however, Evan becomes part of their world. He's young and relatively alive -- or at any rate, less listless than the others -- and most of the interest in The Aliens comes from seeing the way he perceives his friends' world, its influence on him, and the way it tempers, or fails to temper, his growing curiosity and forays into the outside.
Sadness eventually strikes. Actually, "strike" is too strong a word -- let's say sadness seeps in: A gate closes, a life ends. What does death mean for people who have been half-dead all along? It's neither tragic nor catastrophic, just another pointless event. Even the grief feels pointless.
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Director Rebecca Remaly has been profoundly respectful of the script. Every pause is precisely as long as author Baker requires, every line is delivered exactly as written, down to the last "like" and "um." And yet I wonder if the script's intentions were realized. I can imagine a production that creates a sense of time out of time, that changes and slows our brainwaves until we, the audience, inhabit the protagonists' blurred, hypnotic and dreamy headspace, finding a kind of reality in the slowness of the action, the non sequiturs and moments of humor, the times when speech fails KJ and he resorts to tunelessly singing peculiar lyrics: "I won't/Waste away/Wondering why/I won't go down like that/If I die/Time machines were made for me." It's as if he'd taken on Jack Kerouac's stream-of-consciousness rhythms but can't be bothered to invest them with meaning.
The performers -- Casey Andree, John Jurcheck and Tucker Dally Johnston -- are all good actors, but their interpretations are part of the problem. As young Evan, Johnston tends to signal his feelings rather than actually experience them. Andree comes across a bit too robust and healthy for Jasper. KJ is mentally unstable, but I think he'd be more interesting if Jurcheck underplayed the madness and acted as if KJ's songbursts, irrational statements, long silences and weird gestures made perfect sense. As they certainly do to KJ.
There were things I did like about both the script and the production. For example, Evan's attempt to figure out life and then actually live it, despite his friends' inertness. And the way the play communicates that a small, garbage-strewn plot can hold an entire world and become a sacred space for those inside it. "Nothing is more real than nothing," Beckett said in Malone Dies. And this play has plenty of it.
The Aliens Presented by Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company through February 22, Dairy Center for the Arts, 2590 Walnut Street, Boulder, 888-512-7469, boulderensembletheatre.org.