As the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company’s finely unsettling production of “The Aliens” gets underway, you’d do well to get used to silences.
In the way the human body is composed of a great deal of water, so playwright Annie Baker’s play is made up of silences. Some will come as a surprise for audiences used to zippy repartee, yet they are perfectly suited to a friendship in which sentences don’t have to be completed and thoughts can be tag-teamed.
Some of the pauses between the three characters — friends KJ and Jasper and teenage cafe employee Evan — are knocked up; we await the birth of a statement. Sometimes we get one, or a song. Other times we get an “um” or “yeah” instead.
In their early 30s, KJ (John Jurcheck) and Jasper (Casey Andree) have staked out an outside area in the back of a Vermont cafe. Newbie employee Evan (Tucker Johnston) finds them loitering there. He tries to shoo them away. They’re not supposed to be back there. He fails. Instead the nervous 17-year-old comes under the pair’s tutelage.
The action in this haunting, potently efficient drama takes place in the dingy space between a Dumpster and a recycle bin. And it’s impossible not to consider the ways in which those two different yet related receptacles — those sentries of salvage or trash — vibrate with their own meanings in this drama, directed with fine sensitivity to its understatement by Rebecca Remaly.
In addition to the built-in silences, the playwright offers up stillness. Or perhaps stasis is a better word for the betwixt-between space KJ and Jasper seem to occupy.
A high-school dropout, Jasper is at work on a novel with the poet Charles Bukowski as its patron and a character. Before leaving college junior year, KJ studied propositional calculus.
Bearded, physically slight, Jur-check captures KJ’s stoner-meets-Buddhist-brainiac affect. Not the giggle or chill vibe of a cannabis aficionado but the “let’s get lost and found” seeking of a hallucinogen imbiber. (“He’s obsessed with incorporating shrooms into every food group,” Jasper tells Evan.)
Over the next few days, headed toward the Fourth of July, the three bond. And the play’s first act ends with them talking and watching an evocative fireworks show (beautifully hinted at by Ron Mueller’s lighting design and Jenn Calvano’s sound work).
The second act finds KJ and Evan interacting one-on-one as they wait for Jasper to turn up. Ill-at-ease Evan seems even more so, hoping Jasper will hop the cafe’s wooden fence and create a more relatable triangle. It’s not that KJ is distant exactly. He’s just weirdly present to an existence Evan has yet to consider — and might never embrace.
So Evan waits, tail wagging, panting for his Jasper’s voice and attention. Johnston plays Evan with believable tentativeness and a desire for approval. Evan is a puppy-man. (Why the Greeks didn’t envision that particular amalgam of divine and human I do not know.)
The audience might recognize a hint of something more narcissistic in Jasper. An accomplished musical-theater actor in the Denver area, Andree does nice work exuding Jasper’s charisma — and a will to greatness — that speaks to Evan.
If you read the Bukowski poem that lends the play its title — and I encourage you to — it likely will have you staring into space, like KJ, pondering who those aliens are exactly.
Lisa Kennedy: 303-954-1567, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/bylisakennedy
“THE ALIENS” Written by Annie Baker. Directed by Rebecca Remaly. Featuring John Jurcheck, Casey Andree and Tucker Johnston. Through Feb. 22. Two hours, 15 minutes. At the Dairy Center for the Arts, 2590 Walnut St. $16-$27 via thedairy.org or 303-444-7328