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Review: Annie Baker’s ‘The Aliens’ makes impressive Toronto debut (Includes first-hand account)

I fell in love with the acclaimed American writer earlier this year, first upon seeing Company Theatre’s brilliant production of John, and then on reading her Pulitzer Prize-winning 2013 play The Flick. And if her earlier dramedy The Aliens (which opened at Toronto’s Coal Mine Theatre on Wednesday) isn’t quite as polished as those two works, this three-hander about misfits meeting in a café courtyard in Vermont is still a great showcase for Baker’s unique style of character interaction – in which the lengthy pauses can be just as revealing as the words themselves.

It’s also a great showcase for the Coal Mine as an adaptable performance space. This underground east-end theatre has hosted successful stagings of Shakespeare, Strindberg and more over the past few years, in a room that holds fewer than a hundred audience members, and Aliens director Mitchell Cushman and set designer Anahita Dehbonehie transform it into a convincing back patio, complete with wall graffiti and recycling bins. A small, lit window in the back brick wall shows a woman reading and drinking inside the café, suggesting a world separate from (maybe even inaccessible to) these three alienated characters.

The characters are Jasper (Noah Reid) and KJ (William Greenblatt) – two thirty-something old friends who seem to do little else besides hang out in the courtyard every day to chat, play music, drink and smoke – and Evan (Maxwell Haynes), a teenage employee of the café who initially tries to eject the guys from the “staff-only” courtyard, but soon befriends them. Curiously, each of them has some kind of mother issue: Jasper’s mom died on his fifteenth birthday, a trauma he depicts in his novel-in-progress; KJ doesn’t get along with his mother, a new-age hippie; and the usually timid Evan suddenly comes more alive when he expresses his frustrations with his own mom. “I hate her,” he blurts out of nowhere.

While not much happens plot-wise in the first act, there is a lot of fascinating character study. We learn that Jasper and KJ once had a band, but never really agreed on a name. Jasper, ostensibly the more sensitive and articulate of the pair, has literary ambitions and loves Charles Bukowski, but views himself as “a living piece of trailer trash”; he’s also struggling to get over a recent breakup with a woman who, he laments, is now “dating a guy named Sprocket” who “makes his own pants.” KJ is more of an aimless, spaced-out, bearded hipster who likes to experiment with drug-laced tea; as Jasper describes him, he’s “obsessed with incorporating ‘shrooms into every food group.” Haynes’ youthful social awkwardness as Evan gets laughs from the audience, but also earns empathy through his puppy-dog need to fit in with the older guys he sees as cooler and more worldly.

It’s in the second act when a shocking offstage event leads the characters to reveal more about themselves, both to the audience and to each other. Greenblatt has a simple yet intense monologue about a strange childhood memory, and Haynes has an unexpectedly stunning moment near the end that I won’t give away. Earlier lines and details, such as Jasper’s paraphrase from Bukowski that “the state of having lost something is, like, the most enlightened state in the world,” begin to take on more meaning later, revealing the true themes of Baker’s script.

As for the performances, Reid and Greenblatt are fine, but it’s Haynes – making his Toronto debut here after training at New York’s William Esper Studio – who’s the biggest surprise. His Evan morphs believably from a somewhat shy, stuttering Jewish teen to a grieving and lost young man, always approaching the play’s dialogue with the right timing, pacing and rhythm. I once read a movie review that described Christoph Waltz as the only actor in the world who can speak fluent “Tarantinian”; maybe Haynes is close to becoming fluent in Baker.

And it’s Baker’s writing that’s the biggest draw here. Her naturalistic dialogue, rife with significant pauses and realistic “like” and “whatever” vernacular, is so spontaneous-sounding and true to life that it seems easy to create, and other writers should feel jealous of that. Cushman guides it all well, though a few transitions come off as a little odd, such as when Reid enters a scene by climbing over the back of the audience area in the middle of his own ongoing monologue.

Again, The Aliens is not quite the masterpiece of John or The Flick, but it’s still damn good, a deceptively simple portrait of love, loss and life’s disappointments. And this production is a rare chance to experience one of America’s best working playwrights in this neck of the theatre woods (this is only the second professional production of a Baker play in Toronto). It also reaffirms the Coal Mine as one of this city’s most interesting theatre companies, willing to take on challenges and able to deliver on them.

The Aliens runs at the Coal Mine until October 8.

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