By Manning Harris
Pinch ‘N’ Ouch Theatre is currently presenting Annie Baker’s award-winning 2010 play “The Aliens,” directed by Robby Glade, through August 23. New York Times drama critic Charles Isherwood, a fan of the 34-year-old Ms. Baker, declared it the best play of the year. It also won off-Broadway’s prestigious OBIE Award. She snagged a Pulitzer last year for “The Flick.”
I like Pinch ‘N’ Ouch’s description: It’s “a play with music about friendship, art, love and death.” It is not, however, a musical. I found it to be the most charming, compassionate, and evocative play I’ve seen at this intimate theatre, which in the past I’ve called Atlanta’s best off-Broadway house. With this work, they’ve taken a quantum leap forward.
On the surface, “The Aliens” is the essence of simplicity; there are only three characters. KJ (Grant McGowen) is a college dropout with a history of mild psychological problems and is living with his mother. He is around 30. His friend Jasper (Andy Fleming) is a high school dropout; but he is well-read and is a huge fan of Charles Bukowski. Jasper is currently writing a novel, and both men occasionally grab a guitar and sing a bit when so moved.
They meet and hang out in the back alley of a small town Vermont coffee shop, distinguished by garbage cans, a dying plant, and not much else. One of them will smoke a bit, the other sing; to say they are lackadaisical is putting it mildly. On the surface not much happens, and there are long pauses, (Chekovian? Pinteresque?) which become humorous.
But as time goes by, guided by Ms. Baker’s enormous compassion, you begin to realize that this is a quirky, lopsided love story, infused with considerable tenderness. They look after each other; they are each other’s touchstone. For example, Jasper knows KJ can’t drink: “Last time he started drinking he went off his meds.”
Who’s Jasper telling this to? A third character emerges: Evan (Tanner Gill), a 17-year-old bespectacled high school boy who works at the coffee shop. He discovers the other two and gently, gingerly suggests that they probably aren’t supposed to be there.
But then KJ and Jasper just as gently become Evan’s mentors; all three are misfits, outcasts, in their own way; but Baker shows us their humanity. Now we have a threesome, an odd but delightful little ménage à trois (platonic, of course).
The cast here is well-nigh perfect. Grant McGowen’s KJ is a bearded, goofy, funny, likable guy who’s not afraid to show tenderness when he feels it. He even reveals a pleasant, effortless singing voice. It’s a breakout performance for McGowen, who is the theatre’s artistic director.
Andy Fleming’s morose, feisty Jasper is likewise flawless; and so is Tanner Gill’s young Evan, who exhibits teenage angst, vulnerability, and fearlessness—all at the same time. Again, these are talented, perfectly cast actors. “Don’t fret so much, little man,” says Jasper to Evan.
A surprise for me was the wonderful improvisational in-the-moment quality of the performances; and here we must give credit to director Robby Glade, who has quite a background in improvisation. However, I learned that the actors are word-perfect with Ms. Baker’s magical dialogue; there is no deviation at all from her text.
It’s just that the actors are allowed a bit of improvisation in the blocking, even now. This astonishes me; but the actors are so secure in the dialogue and in one another that it works—seamlessly.
I can’t tell you what happens in Act II; but it is moving. “I like it when profundity rears its head. I just don’t like chasing after it,” Ms. Baker has said. “The Aliens” is startling, intimate, funny, and moving. I certainly would not miss it.
For tickets and information, visit pnotheatre.org.