Upstart Productions was an exciting young North Texas theater company several years back. But a year ago, their shows stopped. Now Upstart is back, without founder Josh Glover, but with the comedy, The Aliens, playing at Fair Park”s Magnolia Lounge. In his review, KERA’s Jerome Weeks says the play fits the Upstarters’ strengths.
- Dallas Morning News review
- TheaterJones review
- KERA radio review:
- Expanded online review:
In Annie Baker’s comedy, The Aliens, two stoners hang out in an alley behind a coffee shop. One is a daft, likable dropout named KJ. The other is Jasper, a dark, seething, would-be novelist, the kind who worships Charles Bukowski’s boozers as the height of artistic honesty. Jasper’s girlfriend has just dumped him but that bitter pill has given him an inspiration. His novel’s main character will leave Iowa City. The whole story was going to take place there, but now, he declares, his character will go to California.
So let’s count together, slowly: one-thousand, two-thousand, three-thousand, four-thousand, five-thousand, six-thousand, seven-thousand. And then KJ responds in quiet admiration: “Awesome.“
That seven-second delay is typical of Baker’s slo-mo, long-haul pacing. In fact, she writes in the play’s stage directions that as much as one-third of The Aliens should be silence. That’s going to be a challenge for some theatergoers.
I admire Baker’s willingness to push the limits of ordinary realism and audience patience. Baker has earned a national reputation for her narrow-focus comedies, for her deadpan humor. Paired with Circle Mirror Transformation, The Aliens won an Obie Award, and if Anton Chekhov had written a stoner comedy, it might be something like The Aliens — perhaps Bill and Ted’s Awkward, Comic Adventure into Self-Discovery. As with Chekhov, we often can’t tell, moment by moment, how much satire or sympathy Baker demands. (No surprise: Baker has adapted Uncle Vanya.) She leaves us with those long pauses instead.
I just happen to think Baker’s reputation is a little overstated. For all its sympathy and challenging pacing, The Aliens mostly follows a conventional, hipsters vs. squares storyline. The stoners befriend a young square — a teenage coffee shop employee named Evan who tries to shoo them away — and they ultimately free him from his inhibitions. So it’s off to the cigarettes and the Bukowski. For fifty years, that’s been the framework — minus the Bukowski — for A Thousand Clowns and M*A*S*H (the movie, not the TV show) as well as Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Harold and Kumar and Superbad.
On the other hand, to Aliens’ credit, the straight-arrow Evan eventually does discover how fragile and damaged his new, would-be-gonzo buddies are. Even when playwright Baker’s being sympathetic, though, she falls into conventional tropes: KJ can’t be just an ordinary, medicated head case. He’s gotta be elevated into a kind of inarticulate genius. So The Aliens seems simultaneously fresh — those long pauses again — and a little past its sell-by.
What may justify an audience member’s patience with The Aliens is the utter commitment of the Upstarts. They have set their own high standards when it comes hyper realism. Thanks to guest director David Denson and designer Christopher Ham, this production is amazingly meticulous, down to the leftover plastic lawn chair with a paint can in place of a missing leg. This may seem a minor achievement: Who comes to a show for the authentic-looking nail stains on some carefully aged wood? But it’s remarkable how often North Texas theaters — I’m looking at you, Theatre 3 and Dallas Theater Center — can’t manage this, can’t present a convincing, drab, ordinary, hard-worn, crumbling-concrete stage environment. As a result, this one looks practically exotic.
But with Upstart, the high standards hold for the actors as well, which, ultimately, is why the achievement is worth noting. The production feels seamless. Joey Folsom simply inhabits Jasper in all his chain-smoking slouchiness. Tim Maher as KJ (above) and Justin Duncan as Evan present different, affecting points on the wide-eyed innocent spectrum — from psilocybin brainfry to music-camp counselor.
It’s not that The Aliens is all Waiting for Godot silence and angst. Baker gives KJ some goofy cosmic songs to sing. In a conventional Hollywood stoner comedy, these would lead to some climactic, cathartic concert that would bring everyone together in a fist-pump, hope-for-the-future, cure-all moment.
Here, they’re just touching signs of old hopes, abandoned possibilities. They’re the songs for the band KJ and Jasper never formed: the Aliens.