Annie Baker's The Aliens and Stephen Karam's The Humans. These two recent American plays being produced in cities across Canada this season may have seemingly opposite titles, but have the same artistic aim. To depict life as it is in almost clinical detail – while also hinting at another world beyond our understanding.
The Aliens and The Humans each take place on a single realistic set, feature characters who speak as actual people do – and allow action to unfold in its own time. And yet, something larger, divine or otherworldly, always seems to be present in these funny, painfully real dramatic worlds created by Baker and Karam. American Theatre magazine dubbed this "the new American supernaturalism" – and I've been calling it "numinous naturalism."
Whatever you want to name it, these two playwrights in their 30s are at the forefront of an exciting movement that has taken that old dated style known as naturalism and reinvigorated it for a new generation of audiences.
"I think for a very long time, especially in Canadian theatre, [naturalism] has registered as a very uncool thing to do," says director Mitchell Cushman, whose outstanding production of The Aliens opened in Toronto at the Coal Mine Theatre this week. "We're getting to see the power of that discipline, but crafted for a moment that's very much ours."
Theatre audiences long ago grew accustomed to watching actors move around in rooms on a stage as if they were peering in on private life – but, at one time, this was startlingly new. Realism and naturalism only arrived on the stage starting in the 1870s with playwrights such as Henrik Ibsen and his fan Bernard Shaw – around the same time that people were also fascinated by the reproduction of reality in the emerging art of photography. Those two terms that emerged at that time have always been notoriously difficult to distinguish between – but naturalism has tended to be seen as a more scientific or clinical approach to duplicating reality on stage.
Anton Chekhov, a doctor who once said writers should be as objective as chemists, is the playwright I most associate with it – and it's no surprise that both Baker and Karam have adapted Uncle Vanya and The Cherry Orchard, respectively.
Baker really puts life under the microscope in The Aliens – a 2010 play about three young men who hang out on the desolate back patio of a coffee shop in Vermont.
Jasper and KJ are a couple of thirtysomething layabouts – dropouts from high school and college, respectively – who used to play in a band that was (sometimes) called the Aliens; they seem like they come from another world to a sheltered 17-year-old named Evan that they befriend.
In her stage directions to the play, Baker describes her approach to time in mathematical terms. She insists that at least a third, if not half, of the play be silence. "Pauses should be at least three seconds long," she writes. "Silences should last from five to ten seconds. Long pauses and long silences should, of course, be even longer."
Life is, of course, full of such lengthy silences – but some theatre audiences have reacted negatively to watching them unfold on stage in Baker's work. And so, when her play The Flick – set among the workers at a movie theatre that would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama –
premiered in 2013 at Playwrights Horizon, the artistic director there took the unusual step of sending out a letter to subscribers to explain why the play ran to three hours.
Taylor Chadwick, who is directing The Aliens for What It Is Productions in Edmonton in October, says the silences in the play seem like they shouldn't work – but they do on the stage. "It has a real natural flow… and each moment of silence is filled with so much," he says.
If The Aliens depicts a slice of life from disaffected white America in Bernie Sanders territory, The Humans does the same from the area recently conquered by U.S. President Donald Trump. The 2015 play takes place in a two-floor apartment in New York's Chinatown – where the middle-class Blakes from Pennsylvania have gathered for Thanksgiving dinner. The family's impending fall back to their working-class roots gradually becomes clear over the course of the comedic, yet chilling, play.
Whereas The Aliens allows an audience to feel silences play out in real time, the two-floor set in The Humans – which won the Tony Award for best play in 2016 – allows silent scenes to unfold at the same time as spoken scenes take place in other rooms.
On the surface, The Humans may sound like dozens of other dinner-party or family plays in American theatre – but it is, as The New York Times described it, "a fresh-feeling blend of documentary-like naturalism and theatrical daring." The daring comes in the way the play, according to director Jackie Maxwell, makes the audience "more and more aware of an outside force" over the course of the dinner during conversations about pensions and health care – but also nightmares and a sci-fi series about aliens.
"Is it supernatural – or is it a projection of the fear and the anxiety that is inside the room?" asks Maxwell, the former artistic director of the Shaw Festival, who will direct the Canadian premiere of The Humans at the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton and Canadian Stage in Toronto this winter. (Karam's play is also getting separate productions at the Manitoba Theatre Centre, the Arts Club Theatre in Vancouver and Theatre Calgary later in the new year.)
In its sense of foreboding, Maxwell compares The Humans to John – another play by Baker, set in a quaint bed and breakfast in Gettysburg, Pa., that was recently seen in an award-winning production by Toronto's Company Theatre. "There was a hint of another world – something darker, something outside the hermetically sealed world that you get," she says.
The same can also be said of The Aliens, where KJ's drug use and (only occasionally medicated) mental illness inspires him to write lyrics about "intuitive energy flow" and "two focal points [that] are the same point."
"I'm a Martian masterpiece from another dimension," he sings – and it sends a shiver down your spine even as nothing unnatural is happening on the stage.
Up for debate is whether Baker and Karam's form of naturalism is really a new innovation or simply a natural byproduct of what happens when you recreate the world with such close attention to detail – a stage version of the unsettling "uncanny valley" effect that comes from 3-D animation that comes too close to seeming human. (Certainly, I've had similar experiences with it in Maxwell's productions of great naturalists such as Chekhov or William Inge in the past.)
It was the Roman playwright Terence who famously wrote: "I am human, and I think that nothing of that which is human is alien to me." Two millenniums later, however, both The Aliens and The Humans can make you question that certainty.