In what is a relatively quiet week, Melbourne’s stages are currently graced with two plays by Annie Baker, who was last year’s off-Broadway success story. Given the viral way in which hype about the latest playwright to breakthrough in New York effectively hijacks mainstream arts reporting out of that city, I’m actually surprised that this doesn’t happen more often.
Regardless of what the coincidence suggests about the willingness of local companies to tag along behind the taste makers of New York and London, this is actually a fantastic opportunity for Melburnians to see the multiple talents of this young playwright variously explored on two different stages, while also observing some of the cultural differences between the two companies as they grapple with the similar material.
The result is fascinating. Even as Circle Mirror Transformation, directed by Aiden Fennessy at the MTC, provides the more satisfying entertainment, Nadia Tass’s The Aliens seems to me a deeper and more interesting production.
Baker’s fascination seems to lie in a kind of remnant America, a place she dubs “Shirley”, the fictional town in Vermont where both plays are set, a place where spiritual outsiders and gentle misfits persist in the twilight of their unfashionable ideals.
The Aliens is set at the back of busy suburban café in a cluttered space beside the bins where Jasper and KJ, two slacker-types in their early thirties, spend their days drinking tea and smoking cigarettes. Jasper (Brett Cousins) is a serious-minded autodidact writing a Beat-influenced novel, while KJ (played by a wide-eyed Brett Ludeman) is a former student of philosophy and mathematics who dropped out after a nervous breakdown. Into their world walks Evan (David Harrison), a high-school kid working at the café on his summer break. Although at first intimidated by their outsider attitude, their refusal to sit inside the café, Evan soon finds himself drawn to the strange freedom implied in their antisocial routine.
Bakers’ best achievement in this play is the precision with which she co-ordinates her outsiders, articulating them through a subtle accumulation of literary and musical allusions that locate them with unexpected precision on the American cultural map – unexpected because of their naturally vague manner through the length of the play. This rescues the tone from a generalising sentimentalism that occasionally threatens, and also opens up a more specific elegiac drama, the drama which happens, as it were, in the silences.
One has to credit Tass’s direction for resisting the satiric temptation of these characters, which might have made it more palatable, but which certainly would have flattened it emotionally. I did think, however, that the restless changes in lighting tended to work against what is an otherwise respectful treatment of the play’s natural lentor, the only suggestion of an impatience for the ever elusive “meaning” to emerge from the silences.
There are a lot of silences. Baker herself writes that a third of the play should be silence. Certainly, this can be a problem for some. The woman sitting on my right gave the play about five minutes before, after a series of emphatic sighs, she abruptly whipped out her iPhone and spent the next hour catching up on emails, her frown distractingly lit in the phone’s backlight. Thank god she left at interval.
The highlight of the show is the Fourth of July scene, where Jasper reads a portion of his novel. Brett Cousins beautifully suggest the precariousness of Jasper’s freedom and artistic vocation, while still insisting on his strength of resolve. The novel fragment itself is beautifully realised: an honest pastiche of late mid-century American romanticism, the bohemia of Kerouac or Fante or Bukowski in his wistful moments.
While this a more contemplative play, I felt that it too, like Circle Mirror, it fell short of a complete dramatic statement, preferring to present itself as an empathetic homage to an ideal of freedom which Baker sees persisting in a counter-cultural underground.