The Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company (BETC) has proven itself to be one of the best theatre companies in Boulder or, truly, anywhere. It consistently produces lively, entertaining, thought-provoking plays by a wide variety of playwrights ranging from famous to obscure. Demonstrating equal facility with drama, comedy and everything in between, BETC almost always manages to “play bigger” than it is.
Even the best MLB slugger doesn’t hit a home run every time he steps up to the plate, however, and BETC’s latest, The Aliens, represents a statistically unavoidable — if decidedly infrequent — strikeout for the usually phenomenal company.
A three-man play, The Aliens takes place entirely behind a small coffee shop in Vermont. Two slacker hipsters have annexed the coffee shop’s old, wooden picnic table nestled between a big, blue recycle bin and a graffiti-covered dumpster. They don’t work there. They’re not welcome there. But there they lounge, seemingly every day, like two would-be back alley prophets.
KJ ( John Jurcheck), with his unkempt hair, twitchy affect and fervent dedication to all things psilocybin, is the Chong to Jasper’s (Casey Andree) aspiring novelist Cheech. Both men are around 30 years old, and both are dropouts (of college and high school, respectively). When they’re not staring off aimlessly into the middle distance for minutes at a time, they engage in putative “real life” exchanges about Jasper’s recent breakup or the latest turn his novel has taken.
Early on, the two burnouts meet new coffee shop employee and high school student, Evan (Tucker Dally Johnston). The picture of sheltered innocence — he’s a counselor in training at a nearby Jewish music camp — Evan is first wary of then drawn to the alien creatures that are KJ and Jasper. Jasper wows the youngster with references to Bukowski and offers of cigarettes. KJ gives him some ’shroom tea.
Soon K-Jay and Not-So-Silent Jas have become Evan’s fast friends and gutter tour guides, and this is the only part of The Aliens that rings remotely true. As Evan, Johnston convincingly embodies the mix of apprehension and excitement unique to gawky high schoolers. His performance is far and away the best thing the play has to offer. Evan’s almost immediate infatuation with and near-idolization of Jasper, in particular, feel completely organic.
Jurcheck, who impressed me in the past in Good People and Metamorphoses, holds his own as the wild-eyed KJ, but the periodic lulls in which KJ becomes a caricature — and worse, a dull one — just go to show that Jason Mewes, repeat offender as the talkative partner to Silent Bob, deserves way more praise than he gets for his work in Kevin Smith’s films. As solid as Andree was playing multiple roles in BETC’s Ambition Facing West last season, here he seems at times to be straining to find the truth of Jasper.
Ronald Mueller’s set and lighting design are commendable. The set is one of the more detailed I’ve seen from BETC in some time, and the lighting — aided by Jenn Calvano’s gorgeous sound work — brings a Fourth of July fireworks show to life inside the Carsen Theatre.
With at least passable performances, above average production design and Rebecca Remaly’s expectedly competent direction, why did The Aliens leave me, frankly, annoyed? The blame rests squarely on the Pulitzer Prize-winning shoulders of playwright Annie Baker.
BETC’s summary of The Aliens describes the play as being about “life between the lines and greatness found in the most unlikely of places.” Statements like that either presage something amazing or amazingly pretentious. Unfortunately, The Aliens is an example of the latter. The references to Bukowski and Henry Miller, as well as to propositional calculus and folk staple, “The Hammer Song,” that pepper the play feel self-conscious at best and like poseur nonsense at worst. They exist obliviously in hermetically sealed bubbles unconnected to any larger themes or characterizations.
And then there are the silences. The play opens with Jasper and KJ sitting in a protracted silence. Such moments are repeated again and again… and again… throughout The Aliens and become increasingly grating as the play goes on. Based on comments by both Baker and Remaly, this overabundance of silence is not only purposeful but considered inspired. I beg to differ. It’s not that pointed silence has no place on stage. It can be an extremely effective theatrical device. But silences need to be earned, and in The Aliens they never are.
The Aliens may be a strikeout, but given BETC’s lifetime batting average, I’m sure that its next production, Stupid F##king Bird, will be another home run, or at least an extra base hit.