Spend time with 'The Aliens' at Studio

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Entertainment,Theater

If the heady waft of herbs hanging in the air doesn't smack you on the way in, then walk into the Milton Theatre space at the Studio Theatre and it won't take long before you figure out where you've landed. There may not be a contact high, but you don't have to be a fan of Jerry Garcia to understand you've been transported from the hip urbanitas of 14th Street below to the neglected back lot of a small business establishment. With or without refreshment, this is a fine place to stay.

Littered with empty cups and a trail of cigarette butts, Daniel Conway's set looks exactly the way a Ray LaMontagne song feels, all gritty reality poised like a painting of mundane beauty. It's here, among the clay pot ashtray hiding beneath one lone picnic table, a few utilities scattered in plain sight, some old lawn chairs and an array of garbage bins belonging to the Green Sheep coffeehouse, we meet the titular misfits in Annie Baker's "The Aliens."

They're just a couple of loitering dropouts, writing songs and reciting the words of Charles Bukowski by rote -- her title alludes to one of his latter poems -- while waxing philosophic on life in their sleepy little Vermont town. KJ and Jasper are the kind of brilliant stoners you wish you knew, though their days are spent crafting psilocybin tea and penning the next great novel rather than making new friends. Enter Evan Shelmerdine, a recent 17-year-old hire at the coffee shop who asks them to leave, and suddenly everything that seems familiar is foreign, with one smart Jewish kid left in the balance.

Onstage
'The Aliens'
Where: The Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW
When: Through Dec. 23
Info: $35 to $72; 202-332-3300; studiotheatre.org

To be clear, nothing really happens in Baker's tiny slice of life, and it's not your typical coming-of-age tale. Her story slithers along at a snail's pace, in a way that you find yourself consumed by the pairing of torn blue jeans with dirty shoes, or the inelegant way a man lights his cigarette. Lila Neugebauer, who also directed the West Coast premiere this past spring, carefully adheres to Baker's directions for loaded, luxurious silences and pregnant, potent pauses.

It's a quiet and poignant play, and Baker's delicate ode to realism unfolds in a foggy veil of midsummer haze, the perfect setting to spend a few glorious, insignificant moments in the company of Scot McKenzie and Peter O'Connor. McKenzie delivers a heart-crushing portrayal of KJ, an anti-hero paralyzed by his own depression and the genial sidekick to O'Connor's emotionally numb Jasper. Brian Miskell's Evan is a convincing "McLovin" type of teen, desperate for friendship as he awkwardly strums out the notes of Peter, Paul and Mary.

With her signature subtle humor and dry wit, Baker's slow but devastating drama examines the realities of living in a world where we're more connected than ever before yet still struggling to connect to each other.

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