TAMPA — It's always nice to see conventions broken successfully. The Aliens, now running at Stageworks Theatre, features elements for which young playwright Annie Baker has been celebrated, notably its use of smart, realistic dialogue and lifelike situations with a minimum of theatrical gimmicks. It's worth seeing.
It begins in protracted silence, as two 30-something men lounge in a cramped, run-down alleyway behind a coffee shop. That lack of dialogue, at the very moment most playwrights would attempt to grab audiences by the shirt collar and demand their attention, hints at the sly confidence and humor to come. These are longtime buddies who complement each other, both in intelligence and brokenness. Jasper is a writer in the mold of a Kurt Cobain, a troubled underachiever and high school dropout.
K.J., his sidekick, flamed out in college while seeking truth through mathematics and mushrooms. He listens dutifully to passages of Jasper's novels, responding with an occasional "awesome" and puts up with his friend's rants about the girlfriend who just broke up with him. They prop each other up, keep each other in check.
Their conversations advance a storyline that leaves itself open to interpretation yet is not at all hard to follow. The writing is crisp and clear in mold-breaking ways. Baker is not preoccupied with "pace," at least not the kind that comes in rat-a-tat-tat dialogue. Characters start sentences, realize they cannot complete the thought and try again. They talk, in other words, like actual people.
Into this relationship of two men, both stalled in life, comes a 17-year-old coffee shop worker, Evan. They clash at first (the men are lounging in an area for employees), then bond. There are some major surprises I won't spoil. The bottom line is that this play challenges the audience by defying expectations in lifelike ways. There is a conventional story and structure beneath it all, one that unwraps itself layer by layer. What works for this production, directed by David Jenkins, is the fact that we care and want to stick around for the end.
"The Aliens" was one of the names Jasper and K.J. had trotted out for their garage band, which never got off the ground. Chris Jackson gives a brilliant performance as Jasper, whose struggles and profound anxieties stem from an abundance of talent. Jackson comes brimming with small articulations, in full command of the intellect and expressiveness that motivate his character.
Derrick Phillips works hard at building a K.J. you can believe in and does a good job at hiding more significant elements of his backstory until it is time to unveil them. The only difficulty is that his portrayal sometimes looks like an actor at work rather than the character himself. Still, he strengthens as the play goes on and by the end has delivered a respectable performance that gets out of its own way, leaving room for the story to conclude in a meaningful way.
The brightest surprise is Franco Colon as Evan, the only well-adjusted character of the three. Colon does not have an easy part, yet comes through with subtlety and nuance. The lessons he learns from these back alley encounters carry the show. Chief among those truths is the fact that even broken people can bear substantial gifts, if we are paying attention.
Contact Andrew Meacham at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.