The Austin Chronicle

Arts Review

Reviewed by Wayne Alan Brenner, April 6, 2012, Arts

The Aliens

Hyde Park Theatre, 511 W. 43rd, 479-PLAY
Through April 21
Running time: 2 hrs.

We've written before about Hyde Park Theatre director Ken Webster's habit of producing and directing neither original events of groundbreaking theatrical deconstruction nor over-roasted chestnuts of traditional theatre. We've noted how he tends to grab hold of newer works that, although clearly in the this-is-a-classic-stage-play format, usually haven't been covered dozens of times and are, most often – to put it plainly – pretty fucking brilliant; and we've asserted how important (and refreshing) this unique niche is. Which is how we've enjoyed Webster's Martin McDonagh jag, his Daniel McIvor predilection, and, most recently, the latest phase of his Annie Baker infatuation.

That's The Aliens, Baker's Obie-winning comedy from 2010, currently turning HPT's stage into the backyard of a Vermont coffeeshop called the Green Sheep (designed here by Ia Ensterä) wherein two early-30s slackers (KJ and Jasper) hang out interminably and ... well, that's really all they do: hang out. And bullshit about this and that – thereby obliquely revealing their character, their dreams and aspirations, and the various obstacles that keep them doing little more than hanging out behind a coffeeshop. It's the Green Sheep's newest employee, Shelmerdine, a kid still in high school, who accosts them (well, as much as he's shyly and uncertainly able) and tries in vain to get the two slackers to leave because "management doesn't want anyone back here; it's supposed to be for the employees."

You know how it is. Maybe you've been that employee, maybe you've been one of those slackers. Or maybe you just know how it is because it's so much a part of life, part of the fabric of modern existence. That's the first thing that's beautiful about this show, that Baker's script captures the milieu and the people perfectly, solidly rendering the general idea and portraying the specifics of place and personalities with such realism that it's like you're not sitting in a theatre but actually there, surveilling an extended, heartbreaking period at the intersection of three lives behind a java joint.

The second thing that's beautiful about this show is the acting; but if you've seen Jude Hickey or Joey Hood perform before, then that'll come as no surprise. Except that, damn, what other role – and he's had many good ones over the years – has allowed Hickey to show what he's capable of at such variety and length? KJ's a chemically dependent dreamer, the foil to Jasper's intense writer, and Hickey is so completely ... natural.

It's all so relentlessly, satisfyingly, fucking natural!

The play, the script, the direction, the actors, all of it. Even the relative newcomer to the stage, Jon Cook, portraying the hapless barista who's entering adulthood the way a space explorer might enter a new planet (not boldly going, but hesitantly attempting), even Cook seems just like That Kid. And hurray for that: for Cook's ability, for Webster making sure that he (and the other two stars) follows the precise script jot by tittle – because it's Shelmerdine's story, really, although it may seem at first that the show is more "about" the older guys. It's a distinct, memorable example of what's meant by the old Spanish saying: "When one moves from the stands to the arena, the aspect of the bull changes." From the stands to the arena, from adolescence to adulthood, from one's home planet to the seemingly more exotic and sometimes dangerous realm of the aliens.

Yeah. From Annie Baker and Hyde Park Theatre to your personal sensorium, where a fierce work of theatre feels like unrehearsed life at its most casual and intense and fraught with potential.

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