Pentacle Theatre’s production of The Aliens, written by Annie Baker and directed by Jeff Brownson, has stirred one of the most divergent audience reactions Salem has seen in some time, with some audience members enamored with its refreshing change of pace, and others leaving at intermission. While I wholeheartedly support Pentacle’s willingness to risk staging a new type of play, I found Baker’s text disappointing and dull.
The play presents three young men as they do nothing much but hang out behind a coffee shop. They read poetry. They play music. They make friends. They come face-to-face with mortality and the threat of growing up. But all of this happens at such a slow pace that the mind wanders, and the audience becomes bored. Yes, there is a dramatic action, but it is buried so deep that by the end of the first act, we still have no idea what it is, which is when some people walk out. Yes, there is theme (loneliness and coming-of-age), but nothing we have not heard before. When the action and themes finally coalesce in the second act, there is no emotional impact, because we do not care enough these characters, who were already going nowhere.
The performers go as far they can with the material. KJ, played by Sam Thompson, is a stoner with deeper psychological problems. His manic explosions are an intense but rare surprise. Jasper, played by Michael Sanders, is an angry writer with girlfriend trouble. Evan, played by Maxwell Romprey (you will remember him as the young man from Anne Frank), is the earnest coffee shop employee. He brings a welcome energy whenever he is on stage. At first, Evan serves merely as a naive foil to the cynicism of the other two, but ultimately this becomes Evan’s play, as he is the only one who makes a journey.
The technical elements are all solid. Tony Zandol creates a convincing set with amazingly realistic texture on the brick wall. Galen Brownson and his team deserve a commendation for sound design, creating an ambiance that transports the audience.
To be fair, I know that many patrons appreciated the subtlety of the storytelling and the nuance of the tempo. Be warned that there is graphic language and imagery that some people will find offensive, although you will find far worse on cable television.
Here follows the editorial portion of this review: I enthusiastically commend Pentacle for taking a risk with this play, one far outside the bounds of their usual repertoire, one that targets new, younger audiences with a text by a fresh playwright. This kind of play is exactly the type of challenging, provocative work that we should be doing in this town.
However, there are so many better plays out there than this one that do exactly the same work; plays that are edgy and young and hip; plays that, I would argue, entertain as well as educate, challenge, and inspire. It is theatre’s job to push audiences outside their comfort zone, to start conversations, to speak truth to power. The great thing about theatre is that we do not all need to feel the same thing at the same time. Pentacle’s intention is absolutely correct, but The Aliens is not a strong enough vehicle to attract the new audiences that we need. Again, I congratulate Pentacle, the actors, and the production team for taking a leap. Salem needs more bold choices.
The Aliens runs through July 30.