By Annie Baker
Directed by Nadia Tass.
With Brett Cousins, Brett Ludeman & David Harrison
SITTING in the second row of Red Stitch theatre ensures immediate involvement in the work.
The United States – a senescent Empire trapped in an adolescent culture. Decades of overconfidence and instant gratification have wrinkled America with waste, and pawned its future to the spiralling dementia of debt. Adolescence as metaphor for US culture is hardly new, but it is almost always deployed in the pejorative.
Annie Baker’s charming play The Aliens unfurls the comparison’s silver lining. What of the diffidence and curiosity of adolescence? Or the naïve trust? Or the capacity to love as if you’d never been betrayed?
Evan (David Harrison) is a high school senior who works at a café. A sheltered, clean-cut, middle-class boy, his eyes are opened to another America when he meets two vagrants loitering in the bin area behind his workplace.
In this liminal space, struggling novelist Jasper (Brett Cousins) holds court, whiling away the hours with meandering chat, performance readings and song. KJ (Brett Ludeman), a schizophrenic acid-head and philosophy dropout, acts the fool.
While the pair lives in a state of boredom and crushing poverty, the joy they derive from each other’s company is overwhelming.
Together, they induct Evan into a mad hatter’s tea party, culminating in a disarming 4th of July celebration. Jasper reads from his novel. Race relations are reimagined through a dream of being black. The Star-Spangled Banner gives way to an impromptu song about frogs.
Baker’s merry little congress seems much saner than the one on Capitol Hill, though satire deepens into elegy as reality intrudes.
Nadia Tass directs a beautifully paced, intricately observed production. The interplay between boy and disempowered men takes flight – into gulfs of silence, through sporadic streams of rhythm and off-beat whimsy – borne aloft by an insistent current of yearning.
Harrison gives a droll, poignant, and wonderfully acute performance as a shy teen. Innocence is an ephemeral thing, hard to capture, and Harrison weaves the awkwardness and fragility of boys into a delicate, utterly convincing portrayal.
Cousins has a stoicism and resigned authority, and achieves buoyant chemistry with Ludeman, whose deeply idiosyncratic and slightly alarming performance runs from affable clowning to despair, demonstrating excellent insight into mental illness in the process. Each eccentricity is a carefully carved crutch for his character’s hobbled sanity – the irrepressible goofy grin, the weird mystical gestures, the sing-song mnemonics of his Steiner education.
It’s education, in fact, that’s most interesting about Baker’s play. Her corner of marginal America is a world of intellectuals and artists, as much as the indigent and mentally ill. America must beware, Baker seems to be saying – a nation that mistreats its poets and ignores its thinkers will have great need of elegies, and no one left to write them.
Cameron Woodhead, The Age (30/08/2011)