Review: Third Rail’s “Aliens” Explores the Angst of Young Men

Chris Murray, Isaac Lamb and Bryce Earhart in third rail rep's production of "The Aliens" by Annie Baker. Photo by Owen Carey.
Chris Murray, Isaac Lamb and Bryce Earhart in third rail rep’s production of “The Aliens” by Annie Baker. Photo by Owen Carey.

By Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly

“The Aliens” opens with two scruffy young men sitting on a picnic table staring broodingly into middle space for quite a long time.

This motif, silent, unexplained contemplation, is repeated at the beginning and end of several scenes, and the way you feel about the depressive angst of young white male countercultural creative types and its examination will likely determine your enjoyment of the play (produced by Third Rail Rep, playing at the CoHo through May 4).

The young men are Jaspar and KJ, and their relationship is mysterious at first, as the former’s hostility is so pronounced it would seem to preclude human relationships, and the latter appears too addled to be capable of them.

After a while a teenager named Evan enters and we learn the picnic bench sits behind a coffee shop where Jaspar and KJ are trespassing. Evan, a meek high school student, asks them nervously and ineffectively to go around to the front, and then retreats.

The play proceeds to unfold, torpidly, as a study of these three. As we glimpse more of their lives and passions, it deepens.

Jaspar is an aspiring novelist, whose touchstones are Charles Bukowski and Henry Miller, which almost goes without saying. As we meet him he’s stinging from the loss of a romantic relationship, and having difficulty both facing and expressing what he feels.

He’s played with originality by Chris Murray, who admirably resists romanticizing him. He’s standoffish and anti-social, and his overtures toward Evan feel more like gang initiation than friendship.

He and KJ appear to be each other’s only acquaintances, outside of KJ’s mom, with whom the latter lives. KJ, we learn, is a former math major, who’s dropped out of college and now ingests a steady diet of psychotropic mushrooms and spontaneously composes surreal, mystic poetry.

 That the character seems plausible and fairly compelling is a testament to Isaac Lamb’s tender, grounded performance.

Evan is the least fully formed character. We learn bits and pieces about him — he has no friends at school, he hooks up with a girl at a Jewish camp, he grows to revere Jaspar — that can feel confusing, contradictory, or both.

He first appears to be comic relief, but emerges as the play’s main character.

The play’s emotional impact comes from two extraordinary scenes: one involving a memory recounted by KJ, and a second at the end, which I won’t reveal.

Those moments feel profound and universal, as people who ordinarily struggle with the most basic acts of communication reveal something raw, vulnerable, and nakedly human, either directly or indirectly.

While those moments leave one a little awestruck, the rest is hit or miss.

Perhaps it’s judgmental, but being past my twenties myself, I wished for Jaspar and KJ to do something besides loiter, or at least question whether they might.

When a twist early in the second act reveals the strength of Evan’s attachment to Jaspar, it feels surprising, and one wonders where it comes. It’s not the fault of Bryce Earhart, who perfectly captures Evan’s kindness, trepidation and insecurity.

Evan’s adoration of Jaspar seems to be a statement about a strain of male outsider literature (Bukowski, Miller, etc.), and its ability to speak to young men, and articulate feelings they sense, but have no words for.

Having heard only a snippet of Jaspar’s novel, Evan later calls him a genius. By the play’s end he’s adopted a number of his rebellious tics.

What the play has to say about people outside this particular profile is fairly little. One assumes there are difficulties or traumas in Jaspar and KJ’s past, but, apart from Jaspar’s having lost his mother at 15, we don’t hear about them.

By the play’s end, its characters appear ready to move on to another place in their lives. One wishes them well, but is less than eager to follow, lest it be no more engrossing than the cafe’s backyard.

The Aliens, Third Rail Rep  through May 4.

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