THE ALIENS beautifully staged at SF Playhouse

 Brian Miskell (Shelmerdine) discovers Haynes Thigpen (KJ) & Peter O'Conner (Jasper) loitering. Photo by Jessica alopoli

THE ALIENS by Annie Baker. Directed by Lila Neugebauer. SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter St., SF. (415) 677-9596 or Playing through May 5, 2012.

Attending theatre with a noted local theatre luminary who is a highly respected director, actor and University Professor of Drama can intimidate when it comes time to write a review. But in the case of The Aliens, being given a superb performance at SF Playhouse, his recent reading of the play script added a layer of knowledge that is pertinent to this review.

A week ago, at the Magic Theatre the script of Any Given Day by Linda McLean is almost totally devoid of stage directions and Jon Tracy’s direction was brilliantly unique. Annie Baker whose fame is at a peak, hopefully not its peak, includes detailed stage directions that according to my guest, was written in the script. This would seem a bit of pretentious by the author and suggests emulating George Bernard Shaw. There is little doubt that she is influenced by Harold Pinter, the master of using pauses but there comes a time when extended pauses allows the audience’s attention to wander. And so it is with The Alien and one wonders whether the otherwise astute direction can be attributed to the director who was following the author’s instructions.

Annie Baker’s name has graced the local papers and blogs due to the fact that she is a much honored playwright and her scripts are being produced in the Bay Area.  The Aurora Theatre group mounted a acclaimed version of Body Awareness and the Obie Award winning Circle Mirror Transformations opens at the Marin Theatre Company in August.

All three of the aforementioned plays are set in the town of Shirley, Vermont. In The Alien two misfits Jasper (Peter O’Connor) and KJ (Haynes Thigpen) are hanging out in back of local cafe. For the first seven minutes of the play there is complete silence. Similar lapses in dialog pop up throughout the two act-eight scene play. Psychologically impaired KJ is into brewing tea with ‘shrooms (psychedelics mushrooms) and Jasper is bemoaning being dumped by his girl friend. Their non-linear conversation about life, women, music and the philosophy/poetry of Charles Bukowski rambles without specific meaning or interest.

Song writer KJ is a 30 year old University of Vermont drop-out where he majored in math and philosophy and who lives with his overly attentive “new-agey” mother and is on medication for his mental illness. Jasper, a high school drop-out with gifted writing skills is working on a picaresque novel and is also the de-facto guardian of KJ.  Their camaraderie is palpable and in an odd sort of way sweet.

Evan (Brian Miskell), a high school student and summer camp music instructor who works in the coffee shop suggests that the duo should not be hanging out in back of the café and timidly suggests they leave. By the time the third scene roles around, Evan becomes attracted to the pair and they share the thrill of a 4th of July fireworks display. 

Nothing really happens in act one and the audience was unusually silent during intermission but all returned to their seats although at least one of them fell asleep. This is unusual for a SF Playhouse whose stagings are top notch. The Aliens production has all the attributes we come to expect from this very innovative group. The acting is superb, Bill English’s stage set a marvel and is complimented by the sound and light designs. This reviewer may be in the minority but the author has not created characters that we can empathize with or care about and she leaves question marks about the attraction of Evan to Jasper that is crucial to the upbeat ending. Would you believe that in the penultimate scene KJ, who has apparently not taken his medication, repeats the word ‘ladder’ 113 times. Really, 113 times.

Running time under 2 hours with an intermission.
Kedar K. Adour, MD