Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe
To be fair, there are segments of every generation that fit the same bill, but millennials catch a lot of flack (often unfairly) for being vapid and directionless. These are the people Annie Baker has put on stage in plays such as The Flick and The Aliens, where we spend enough time with them that they ultimately transcend cliché to become interesting and sympathetic human beings. You don't go to one of these plays for the plot. You go to get to know people.
She became famous for winning the Pulitzer Prize for The Flick in 2014, but this style was already fully formed in the 2010 play The Aliens, which is receiving a superb production by Ironweed Productions in Santa Fe. We hang out with two old friends who appear to be in their late twenties, KJ and Jasper, in the back lot of a cafe in Vermont, where the garbage cans are kept. There they can smoke or do mushrooms or work on songs or just ruminate. The rest of the world is driving by or having coffee, but they're not part of that world. The title The Aliens has nothing to do with extraterrestrials. It's the name of a poem by Charles Bukowski, one of their favorite writers. If you know Bukowski, you know that they are outsiders like he was.
Straight-laced and inexperienced 17-year-old Evan, working in the cafe for the summer, is put off when he first meets them, but comes to think that these guys are pretty cool. KJ seems brilliant in math and logic, but has some sort of mental illness, had a breakdown in college and dropped out, and is now living with his mother and not doing much of anything. Jasper is rootless, writing a novel in the Kerouac vein (the excerpts he reads sound quite good), and smokes a lot. When KJ and Jasper don't dismiss Evan for being too young or too un-hip, he has finally found a couple of friends.
Nothing much happens for long stretches in this play; they talk some and sit in silence a while and then talk again. I found it enthralling. As with Pinter, if you don't get the timing just right, it could be exasperating to sit through, but everything ticks perfectly in this production. The credit goes not just to the writer, but to the excellent directing and acting.
Lynn Goodwin has found the perfect three actors for this play, and has directed their conversations and movements around the small playing area very skillfully. Niko'a Salas captures the volatility of the unstable KJ, but also his innate sweetness. Matt Sanford, with the most soulful eyes, is just right as Jasper, stumbling toward the genius within himself. And Mickey Dolan as Evan gives one of the best performances by a young actor that I have ever seen. His hesitations and awkwardness and wonder and sadness create an archetypal depiction of a teenager of any generation.
It's not just the cast that makes this production so memorable, though. The set by Chadney Everett and Ben Barthell is beautifully crafted. Audience members enter the theater through the set, as if coming out the back door of the cafe, and the set decoration and props (by Paola Vengoechea Martini) are so meticulously observed that there's a poster from the Vermont Department of Health on the wall in the hallway. The lighting by Monique Lacoste and Kush Farrell is thrilling in its subtlety, as when dusk slowly descends on the Fourth of July. Then we hear the captivating fireworks of sound designer Dan Pilburn, who also provides arresting soundscapes for the blackouts between scenes. Sometimes they sound like thunder, sometimes like heavy traffic, and sometimes like the white noise that might be going on in the heads of the characters.
I know that Annie Baker plays are not for all theatergoers, but based on seeing The Flick and The Aliens, I'm a fan. I encourage anyone interested in contemporary American theater to see this flawless production.
The Aliens, presented by Ironweed Productions, runs through March 22, 2020, at Teatro Paraguas, 3205 Calle Maria, Santa Fe NM. Performances are Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 7:30, Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:00. Tickets are $15 - $25. For tickets and information, please visit ironweedsantafe.com or call 800-838-3006.