“The state of just having lost something is like … the most enlightened state in the world,” whispers Jasper, a recently single, self-proclaimed novelist, to his best friend KJ. Boston’s Theater on Fire’s production of Annie Baker’s play, “The Aliens,” is a magnifying glass on the lives of two 30-something slackers who spend their days together loitering behind a coffee shop in small town Vermont, drinking “‘shroom tea” and imparting wisdom upon the shop’s awkward teenaged employee Evan.
A whisper is a suitable volume for the stage, a rocky outdoor clearing nestled between the ivy-strewn brick walls of the Charlestown Working Theater. An audience of 20 or so sit in wooden folding chairs arranged in a semicircle just a few feet from the picnic table, two lawn chairs, and pair of recycling bins that make up the show’s minimalistic set. Fairy lights criss-cross the space overhead, bathing the stage in a soft glow accompanied by the hum of the acoustic music played before each act and during scene transitions. Director Darren Evans has crafted an atmosphere that borders on magical, a beautiful complement (and also juxtaposition) to a play so deeply embedded in the mundane. It is the combination of this setting and the authenticity of the actors’ performances that make this production one of intimacy and evocation.
While the set is absolutely gorgeous, what really makes the show is the skill of the actors. Christopher Sherwood Davis and Jeff Marcus, who play KJ and Jasper, respectively, are believable in their roles of eccentric townies without being stereotypical or caricatured. Marcus’s Jasper is intense and brooding, punctuating Annie Baker’s signature silences with his dramatic cigarette smoking and nervous bouncing of his knee. Davis’s KJ, however, is much more relaxed. Wide-eyed and comfortable in his character, KJ moves through the space around him with the kind of fluidity that could only come from what he lackadaisically refers to as “psilocybin tea.” The greater part of the first act consists of the two alternating between sitting in silence and shooting the breeze, talking about topics ranging from breakups to friends who live on wind farms to Jasper’s unfinished novel and everything in between. The actors maintain their easy chemistry through moments of fun and of friction, each playing off of the other’s performances to heighten the quality of his own.
The daily routine of the two protagonists, however, is interrupted by the entrance of the coffee shop’s employee, Evan, played by Ted Kearman and comically described by Baker in her stage directions as, “seventeen and in a constant state of humiliation.” The stuttering teen, clad in a stained white apron and a pair of windbreaker pants that unzip into shorts, tries unsuccessfully to tell KJ and Jasper that they can’t be outside the coffee shop, that it’s “staff only.” He finds friends and mentors in the two, relishing in their invitation to a Fourth of July party located, of course, on the very patio he has repeatedly told the two they cannot be on. Kearman’s performance is awkward in all of the right, or intentionally wrong, places, embodying the uncertainty of being a teen looking for a place to fit in.
It is this scene, the Fourth of July party, where the set, the stage, the actors, and the misty, post-rain air of Friday evening melt together into magic. Jasper and KJ practically reverse roles, the former coming out of his shell, joking and reading from his novel, while the latter has a momentary breakdown, retreating to a small iron staircase to sit until he is coaxed back out. Marcus and Davis hit their perfect stride, showing the intense dependence their characters have on one another and are able to transition seamlessly into playing nonsensical songs on the guitar and singing for their audience of one, Evan. The actors are adeptly lighten the mood without detracting from the previous events. As the fireworks begin to go off in the background, the three dance and talk and eat brownies until KJ’s sparkler burns out and the stage is plunged into darkness. It radiates a warmth felt long after the lights have gone out, and this is only Act 1, which precedes a sharp turn of events in Act 2.
A testament to Baker’s keen sense of the intricacies of the everyday, “The Aliens” is a reflection on the meaning of friendship, the fine line between loser and genius, and the creation of art for the sake of creating anything at all. It is endearing and intense—funny at times, unforgiving at others. Theater on Fire’s production set itself apart by creating a set so close to the audience and cohesive with the acting that it draws all those who watch into the inescapable performance.
“The Aliens” is playing at Charlestown Working Theater until Oct. 7.
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