What defines friendship? It’s the quirkiest of relationships, with innumerable variations. Some survive due to a shared history. Some are fleeting; we appreciate them in the moment but do nothing to nurture them, until they gradually fade away. Others are circumstantial: Think of co-workers or classmates.
In “The Aliens,” Jasper and KJ are the kind of friends who can sit contentedly in silence, spill their guts or engage in nonsensical banter. Their modus operandi is to meet in the alley behind a coffee shop, where they spend hours tripping, reading to each other or musing alone, until a thought bursts forth in a torrent of free speech. The dialogue is occasionally touching, decisively random and often hilarious.
The third character is 17-year-old Evan, a coffee shop employee who discovers the duo as he takes out the trash. He gently attempts to evict them but finds himself entranced by their laissez-faire response to his request. They, in turn, are thrilled to encounter someone to impress besides each other.
Pregnant pauses, awkward silences, hesitant starts: There’s a challenging number of undefined moments in this snapshot of friendship. Managing them is the trick to making the play work.
Director Nicia Carla is careful to draw the pauses as tautly as possible without losing the audience to inertia. The play is set in short scenes, which helps further the sense of time while keeping the leisurely pace of idle afternoons intact.
She’s aided by the craft of fine actors. Matt Cosper’s Jasper is a jittery fidgeter. He paces, he tries to relax, and he draws so deeply on his smokeless cigarette it seems likely to burst into flames. Hard at work on his first novel, Jasper loves Bukowski, and he wants Evan to love him, too.
Grant Watkins plays KJ with all the nuance he can give a quintessential stoner tinged by mental instability. KJ is given to lying on the ground, toying with psilocybins and staring into the sun. He’s also prone to burst into original song, such as the one about Frogmen, who “march to and fro to the drum of the fife.” When Evan, played by high school student Michael Julliard, asks KJ if he is a Buddhist, he seems to become one, right before our eyes.
Playwright Annie Baker’s dialogue reveals the intangible magic of connectivity. KJ and Jasper could be defined as losers, but they are losers who have each others’ backs. Evan is a barely tinted adolescent canvas: awkward, impressionable and lonely. He finds these two loiterers fascinating, and they feed on his fascination. What resounds is the importance of validation, perhaps the ultimate determinant of friendship.
Baker is in her early 30s and has written four full-length plays. Three have won Obie Awards, including “The Aliens,” which shared the 2010 Obie Award for Best New American Play with another of her plays, “Circle Mirror Transformation.” Unusual to say the least, and hopefully a sign she will remain a prolific new talent.