Why does every contemporary production about generational anxiety seem to employ artistic — and therefore intellectual — ennui? From Girls to the films of Noah Baumbach, almost all so-called highbrow comedies nowadays showcase boringly narcissistic hipsters with vaguely artistic tendencies, stuck in self-constructed ruts of laziness, boredom and fear. For characters like Hannah Horvath and Frances Halliday, dreams of artistic transcendence come off as egotistical and ridiculous. The audience is invited to sneer at these ridiculous fuck-ups who dream of any sort of spiritual or aesthetic fulfillment. Does all this result from a sort of bias towards the humanities (a cultural pre-professionalism, if you will)? Or does it result from a certain self-consciousness on behalf of show-/film-writers, who attempt to compensate for fears of wasted lives by exaggerating the wastefulness of the creative impulse? Who knows? ’Tis not for a mere WKND beat reporter to say.
Annie Baker’s “The Aliens,” currently playing at the Off-Broadway Theater, initially appears to be a similar comedy about the awkwardness of interpersonal interaction. However, if the play begins as a sniggering parody, it eventually morphs into a delicate and subtle exercise in compassion, a cold corrective to the cynical, sneering generational comedies saturating the tube.
The play’s central subjects are KJ (Edward Columbia ’18, with blinding scruff) and Jasper (Iason Togias ’16), two stoic bums who spend their days hanging in the alley outside a coffee shop. Then awkward high-schooler Evan (Taylor Rogers ’17) stumbles into their lives. There is no immediately apparent plot, and whatever action does occur seems to evolve organically out of character and situation rather than narrative necessity. Conversation is appropriately meandering and aimless, and a good third of the production is conducted in discomfiting silence. Jae Shin’s adept, minimalistic set design effectively allows the audience to hang with these people as they strum guitars, kick rocks, spike teas with hallucinogens, light and exhale cigarettes and in general do whatever comes to mind in a quiet, desperate bid to fill time.
Exposition is dispersed through tangential asides and mumbled monologues rife with “like”s and “I don’t know”s. The audience eventually begins to discern the long and complex history of the two loiterers, who are holding onto each other as much due to desperation as friendship.
KJ is the more dependent party in the relationship, a childish and laconic figure who dropped out of college after suffering a psychological breakdown. Jasper is more acerbic, a self-proclaimed novelist obsessed with Bukowski (and who behaves exactly the way one might expect, knowing that he’s a self-proclaimed novelist obsessed with Bukowski). Togias’ performance is calm and controlled even in the midst of emotional outbursts, which he executes in the form of periodic glimpses into the character’s smoldering rage and frustration.
Particularly noteworthy about the production is that its characters — although amusing — never become objects of easy irony. The production’s key shift from naturalistic parody to powerful character study occurs in a marvelous scene during which Jasper reads a chapter of his novel out loud on the Fourth of July. One might expect the novel to be an inane Bukowski rip-off, judging from the satire of earlier scenes. And, in a certain sense, it is. But it’s also more. It becomes an instrument that the three friends utilize to bond over a shared sense of alienation and societal disillusionment. Despite a lack of self-awareness, Jasper’s lines brim with passion, and it’s difficult not to crack a smile as KJ, lowing with enthusiasm, lifts his friend into the air and proclaims him a genius.
In Annie Baker’s worldview, creative aspirations are not to be laughed at. They’re genuine yearnings upon which people have staked their lives in desperate bids for meaning. This play, like much of the playwright’s oeuvre, is an exercise in humanity that seeks to change the way we view the dropouts, the bums, the alienated and the fuck-ups in our lives.