SALT LAKE CITY — The Aliens, written by Annie Baker, is an effective treatise on dysfunction and isolation. The play opens with Jasper (played by Zack Nielson) lighting a real cigarette (so, be prepared for the smell) as he and his friend KJ (played by Darrin Burnett) hang out behind a business. Like several other moments in the play, this initial scene is includes long silences between the two of them as they sit together. Just then, Evan (played by Eleanor Patterson), a teenage employee at the business, attempts to kick them out because that back area is for employees only.
The set (designed by Spencer Potter) was surprisingly versatile, providing the perfect container for the play. Essentially, the set consists of the door to the café, a picnic bench, some trash cans, and an extra chair. There is also a fence alongside this back area that the characters interact with. The basic realism of the set contributed to the play’s most emotionally evocative moments, such as when the three characters are gathered together for a fourth of July hang-out, and the lights are dimming — bringing the atmosphere closer to night time — with only the light above the door illuminated. As it becomes more obvious that it is completely dark outside, there are sounds of fireworks going off in the distance. KJ begins to slowly sway to the sounds of fireworks going off, when he asks for the sparklers that Evan has brought with him. And just like the cigarettes, the sparklers are real, and are actually quite beautiful to behold in the darkness of the theatre. And as the sparkler is dying, KJ runs to a small tin on the floor, dropping the sparkler inside, which cues the end of the scene as the entire room goes dark.
The naturalism of the play is a consistent choice in Stephanie Stroud‘s direction. Characters put out their cigarettes on the ground, leaving them there, and at one point KJ tosses a used teabag onto the ground (instead of in the trash). The lighting (designed by Maddie Kiel and Tay Rushton) also contributes to the grounded feeling of the play, especially as the lights change colors to indicate the time of day, and the light above the business door provided an excellent touch.
Characters interact with the set is realistic ways, such as when Jasper is reading a snippet of his novel to KJ while sitting on a trash can, and even characters say, “um,” a lot and seem insecure or just unsure of what to do or say. Patterson is endearing as a 16- or 17-year-old boy trying to articulate what his time was like at the Jewish music camp he worked at, or venting about his mom to KJ. However, Burnett really carries the emotional weight of the story. Even in the beginning, his character is given more room for emotional range, while Nielson just very loudly declares everything he says. Although KJ seems really chill, Jasper keeps him from drinking alcohol, which causes KJ to react angrily, cursing and eventually throwing a tantrum.
Jasper plays the guitar, and both he and KJ had tried to form a band together (that went by a plethora of names), and so he would either play the instrument or sometimes KJ would start to sing. In one such moment, Evan has gone out back and see KJ by himself, and after chatting about sex for a bit, KJ begins to sing a made-up song. As Evan attempts to leave during a break, “That’s awesome,” but KJ counters, “It’s not over,” trapping Evan outside with him as he continues to sing.
The Aliens has several heavy, emotionally potent moments that audience members need to experience for themselves. Baker’s script is like an onion, each layer being peeled back as new information is revealed about the internal lives of these characters. For that reason, the play is best when experienced knowing very little about its characters, their actions, and their past decisions.
Although the bulk of the play is tightly woven and intentional, there is an uncomfortable scene where Jasper is accepting the sparklers from Evan (who is Jewish), and Jasper says, “Oh, it probably sounds like I’m making fun of Jewish people,” when he asks for the sparklers in a weird tone of voice. Evan, only a teenager, sits there awkwardly before saying, “Okay.” Jasper then goes on to tell a cringe inducing story about how KJ had a dream that he was Black, and felt accepted by the other Black people. It is not clear what purpose this served, as race and religion are never brought up again, and no one in the show is Black. Perhaps the point is to show that a white high school dropout is not aware of how to talk appropriately to someone different from him?
Outside of this one scene, The Aliens is an intriguing play about three people who are physically together, but unable to create meaningful relationships. The play is triumph of naturalistic acting, directing, and design that Salt Lake audiences should clamor to see.