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A CurtainUp Review
The Aliens

you may not believe it
but there are people
who go through life with
very little friction or distress

. . .you may not believe it
butsuch people do exist

— excerpted from Charles Bukowski's poem "Aliens"
The Aliens
From L to R: Michael Chernus and Dane DeHaan
(Photo: Sandra Coudert )
With this world premiere playwright Annie Baker is taking Off-Broadway audiences for a third visit to Shirley, a small Vermont town. The first, Body Awareness, was presented at Atlantic Theater's Second Stage. The next, Circle Mirror Transformation at Playwrights Horizons' Peter Jay Sharp Theater, met with such an ecstatic reception both for the play and for Sam Gold's unfussy direction that it was extended and then brought back for a second run.

With her knack for diverting characters and unpretentious dialogue, Baker, who's not yet thirty. seems to have entered into that hallowed circle of up and coming young playwrights to whom attention must be paid. And with The Aliens, once again helmed by Sam Gold, the press preview I attended at the Rattlestick Theater was packed with critics.

I'll confess that I was charmed and intrigued by Circle Mirror Transformation, but thought it badly needed trimming. I therefore came to The Aliens hoping that Baker would deliver on the promise shown in Circle. . . but had reigned in her penchant for drawn out silences and fragmented story telling. Instead, The Aliens is even more fragmentary and has enough pauses to make Harold Pinter seem verbose; in fact, this time the long silences are somewhat less organic than they were in the previous play. But then, Baker does have a way of making the silences and sense of nothing much happening work. Though much of this anticipated new play is often more alienating than fully engaging, ultimately, Baker manages to make us feel sad for two of her characters and hopeful for the third .

The good news is that Gold has once again created a wonderfully authentic no-frills environment for us to meet two super bright but aliented dudes whose lives have spiraled into the mindset described in the above quote from the Charles Bukowski's poem borrowed by Baker to name her play. Sam Gold, who's become something of a specialist in helming finely nuanced, character driven plays has, true to his directing style, allowed the actors to reveal their quirks and feelings very gradually. In the first act especially that laissez faire direction tends to strain the audience's patience.

Actually, Bukowski is more than a title source. The late poet novelist and short story writer is something of a cult figure, as Jack Kerouac was before him. He was less intrigued with conventional Americans than those who, like Baker's KJ (Michael Chernus) and Jasper (Erin Gann), find themselves trapped in America's underbelly, where booze and drugs prevail and hopes and relationships can't take root.

Baker doesn't wave any literary magic wand over KJ and Jasper for a happy ending. But she does use these thirty-year-old slackers as a means for facilitating her third and much younger character's coming of age travails. That character, Evan (Dane DeHaan), is a shy, awkward teenager who is still innocent enough to see the lost possibilities in these guys he finds hanging around in back of the cafe where he works part-time. As in Circle Mirror Transformation this youngest member of the cast is also the one who gives the most memorably sad-funny performance. Of the songs worked into the script (by Chernus and Gann and Patch Darragh) his is the one that seems the most necessary and compelling add-on.

While Erin Gann's Jasper appears only in the first act, it's the excerpt he reads to KJ from his forever in progress novel that makes a big impression on Evan. Michael Chernus seems to fit these uncombed hair type of guys even when playing a millionaire — as he did in a showcase I saw him in at Williamstown's Theatre Festival (Create Fate by Ethan Frankel). His KJ is the more interesting and fully evolved of the two Bukowki-ish characters. He was apparently one of those genius students who tend to self-destruct if not carefully nurtured by parents and teachers. His excrutiatingly realistic recollection of his obsession with the word ladder when he was five years old, makes it all too evident that his potential for both emotional trouble and brilliance should have been recognized early on. It's a tough role but Chernus does ultimately brings off the combination of I-don't-care lethargy, frustrated anger and sadness. KJ's final scene with with DeHaan's Evan is especially moving and makes you wish you could point him to a place where he too could still have a future.

Fortunately, unlike KJ and Jasper, Ms. Baker's potential has not gone unnoticed and it's a good bet that all the praise that has been heaped on her will encourage her to keep honing her skills. According to an interview with Alexis Sokolski in the Village Voice, she's already re-visiting Shirley, Vermont to try her hand at a marital comedy. Who knows, maybe with time, Shirley will become as famous a literary landmark as Horton Foote's Harrison, Texas.

Circle Mirror Transformation
Body Awareness

The Aliens by Annie Baker
Directed by Sam Gold
Cast: Michael Chernus (KJ), Dane DeHaan (Evan), Erin Gann (Jasper)
Sets: Andrew Lieberman
Costumes: Bobby Fredrick Tilley II
Lights: Tyler Mycelou
Sound: Bart Fasbender
Props: Eugenia Furneaux-Arends
Original songs by Michael Chernus, Patch Darragh and Erin Gann
Stage Manager: Nicole Bouclier
Running Time: 2 hours with intermission
Rattlestick Theatre 224 Waverly Place (off Seventh Avenue South - between West 11th & Perry Streets) 212-868-4444
From 4/14/10; opening 4/22/10; closing 5/29/10.
Monday at 8pm; Wednesday to Saturday at 8pm; Sunday at 3pm.
Tickets are $45.
Reviewed 4/18/10 press preview by Elyse Sommer
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