I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,
starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking
for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly
connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night …
–Allen Ginsberg, Howl, 1955
While “every generation throws a hero up the pop charts” , for each of those so elevated there are innumerable others who are marginalized, forgotten, and wasted. For every beat poet and writer, such as those mentioned in this gritty story (including Jack Kerouac, Charles Bukowski, and Henry Miller), there are countless aspirants who, like Ginsberg’s friends, lost it.
In Pulitzer Prize-winning (The Flick, 2014) Annie Baker’s The Aliens, KJ (John Jurcheck) and Jasper (Casey Andree) sit amidst the psychological detritus of their lives, gathered around a coffee shop rear-entrance somewhere in small town Vermont.
After you turn off your cellphone, prepare to dial back the clock and proceed in real time. While Baker’s approach is challenging—Gotham critics were mixed over this issue—it’s well worth the journey. Think “Vladimir and Estragon come of age in Vermont.”
Jurcheck’s brilliantly played part-Deadhead, part-Zen, medicated KJ, a former logic major at the university—as comfortable in the present setting as he would have been in the late ’60’s and early ’70’s—keeps us wondering what will happen next; while Andree’s Jasper, unsettled after a breakup, has us believing he has the gumption for a creative breakthrough. Together, they had a rock band that changed its name as often as it performed.
The newest employee at the coffee shop, Evan (Tucker Dally Johnston), a timid, confused high school music geek, emerges one day from the back door and ends up becoming their protégé. Johnston’s subtle transformation gives us hope that Evan may be the one to get out of this town alive.
Director Rebecca Remaly gives full credence to the playwright’s direction that the pauses and silences of everyday conversation be heeded, and in doing so challenges us to question the self-imposed limitations—of our smartphone, spoon-fed information culture—that we place on our own behavior and potential. Another benefit of this real time performance approach is the emphasis placed on the facial expressions of the three actors, much like the intimacy we experience on the silver screen.
Putting aside our societal hypnosis on the grandiose claims of those who offer “social progress,” we see what personal development looks like on the ground: incremental changes of the heart.