Annie Baker is so good at relinquishing control. Or, more aptly, the Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright is so good at giving us this illusion. She writes like a ventriloquist, channelling the funny, melodic tics of modern vernacular into dialogue that feels unprocessed, meandering and utterly unplanned. There's so little sense of determinism in her work that we may feel as though we're going nowhere until we're staring formidable themes in the face. Richness is achieved lightly, cumulatively, and the sense of discovery this brings – the emotional and intellectual revelations – can be thrilling.
The Aliens, which opened at the Coal Mine Theatre on Wednesday night, is only the second time Baker has been professionally produced in Toronto. John, performed by the Company Theatre this past February, was one of the best productions I've seen of recent date – a mesmerizing, three-plus-hour play about a young couple who spend a few nights at a B&B in Gettysburg, Pa. Both plays are mostly talk and little action in the most satisfying and irreverently anti-Aristotelian way, and while the latter is certainly the more ambitious and mature work, The Aliens is a beautifully structured and executed early career gem. Baker knows how little a person must say or do to reveal their true colours, and in this 2010 play of coffee-shop banter and bro-talk we are exposed, almost by accident it seems, to the depth of its characters' integrity, the softness of their hearts.
The action isn't actually set in a coffee shop but in the "staff area" behind one. The Coal Mine, a converted quasi-black-box theatre, is an ideal space for the intimacy of Baker's simple concept. Two thirtyish friends, KJ (William Greenblatt) and Jasper (Noah Reid) have made this back alleyway their home away from home, a place to smoke, play guitar and talk about Charles Bukowski. If this sounds like your idea of Xennial hell (that's the mini-generation between Generation X and millennials – one I have in common with the playwright), Baker is consciously playing into that trope. In the stage directions, KJ is actually described as having a man bun.
But there's nothing satirical in Baker's approach; she's dealing in naturalism, and naturalism can sound pretty extraordinary at times. When we listen for long enough, we start to hear flickers of remarkable compassion, loyalty and suffering. KJ lives with his mom and has problems with alcoholism and delusional behaviour. Jasper, an aspiring novelist, does hard drugs and lost his mom as a teen. Both are pretty screwed up when it comes to women and neither seem to have made much of their lives in the conventional way that lives are "made." But both also have each other's backs with a gentle ferocity that makes friendship look about as important as any of this.
What stops director Mitchell Cushman's production from entirely living up to the delicate power of Baker's script is that he can't quite get the chemistry right between his two lead characters. KJ and Jasper aren't drawn sharply enough against the text; they don't delight with enough vividness in each other's quirks and don't nail the unspoken tenderness that needs to run between them. Their psychological differences are key to making the humour work; Jasper needs to be the brighter, tougher and more articulate one, while KJ is a daft, clumsy softy. He reels off the shortlist of completely unfunny names for the duo's former band (they ultimately chose The Aliens) and reveals a streak of unwitting cruelty when he details his romantic dealings with women.
Baker's writing may give the illusion of coasting on its long mumbling tangents; in fact, it's asking that the actors be so specific in their interpretations, and so emotionally tuned in, that volumes are spoken when nothing is said. She has a whole paragraph in her stage directions on her protracted pauses: "At least a third – if not half – of this play is silence." To make this work, the actors have to be internally on fire.
Maxwell Haynes, on the other hand, gets Baker instinctively. He's ridiculously funny as Evan Shelmerdine, the gawky 17-year-old coffee-shop employee who acts as an interloper on the back-alley hangout. From the moment he steps on stage and explains, stammeringly, that the alley is just for staff, while desperately trying not to sound uncool, we get the magic of the writing at full volume. Haynes is a hilarious melding of deadpan millennial and childlike sweetness; as he naively falls in love with the perceived hipness of his older friends, learning to smoke and read Bukowski at their behest, we can't help but fall in love with him.
When the script takes an unexpected twist in Act Two – a turn of events that rings on both absurdist and naturalist scales – Haynes hits a moving extreme of vulnerability. In a quiet moment, he calls the girl he met at Jewish orchestra camp for comfort (a girl whom KJ objectified in an earlier conversation) and thoughtfully inquires about her casting in "the Pachelbel" first.
I'm not the first critic to compare The Aliens to Waiting for Godot, but having spent time with Gogo and Didi just last week at Soulpepper Theatre, the parallels are too productive not to mention. Both are bromances about social misfits who while away the time in liminal spaces, foregoing with the conventions and meaning attached to the workaday world. But as both sets of dudes sing and joke around and parse each other's thoughts with playfulness and vigour, we wonder if we aren't watching the making of a different kind of meaning – or whether our own meaning is just about as improvised and strange.
The Aliens continues at The Coal Mine until Oct. 8.