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Generally speaking, in a script, if two dudes sit around talking about the work of poet Charles Bukowski, more than likely things aren’t going to end well. Recall the indie film Sideways, where Miles and Jack discuss Bukowski while lamenting a California wine country trip gone freakishly wrong. In Paper Lantern Theatre Company’s The Aliens, a play by current American theatre darling Annie Baker, Jasper (Josh Foldy) and KJ (Sterling Hurst) introduce their new friend Evan (Owen Hickle-Edwards) to the poet Bukowski, among other things.
Jonathan Bohun Brady, who last season headed up Paper Lantern’s moving Last Fall, directs this extremely subtle piece of work that is as delicate as onionskin and just as layered. This is one of four of Baker’s plays that take place in the fictional small Vermont town of Shirley, and this time the setting is an alley area behind the local coffee shop. Scenic and lighting designer Matthew Emerson captures the casual intensity of this particular environ with its chain link fence, ragged picnic table, dumpster, and plenty of (environmentally-safe) cigarette butts.
Foldy (last seen as Bob Cratchit in Triad Stage’s A Christmas Carol) and Hurst (in his Paper Lantern debut) are the backstreet boys who, in their thirties, are no longer boys, but because of hard knocks and perhaps some clinical mental challenges have entered a state of arrested development, showing no tendencies of progressing. Their newfound friend and perfect foil, the coffeehouse waiter Evan, is played with a combination of naiveté and ingenuousness by Hickle-Edwards, as he drinks, smokes, and questions his way to another level of maturity.
Paper Lantern dramaturg Christine Woodworth reminds us that in theatre silence is also speech, and in this play there is much meaning in stretches of lonely silence. It draws the audience into a vortex, of sorts, that allows them, perhaps somewhat uncomfortably, to process and interpret what is going on. The flecks of humor in the repartee require a finesse that these actors have nailed, a natural rhythm that Hurst, especially, seems to have honed in his previous work with comedy, specifically as founder of the L.A.-based comedy group Mandoodle.
The Aliens won an Obie (Off-Broadway) Theatre Award for Best New American Play in 2010, along with another Baker production, Circle Mirror Transformation. It is a play that is demonstrative, perhaps, of the new wave of American playwrights, and it is fitting that Paper Lantern is ahead of the curve with its mission of “creation, collaboration, and risk.” Its audiences are the ones who benefit from this foresight. If this first show is any indication, Paper Lantern’s fifth season will be a great one.
This production of The Aliens continues through Sunday, January 27. For more details, please view the sidebar.