Lingering in a life at the coffee shop

Most playwrights become fond of their characters. Annie Baker, whose sweet and beautiful little play "The Aliens" is playing for the first time in Chicago at A Red Orchid Theatre, clearly goes beyond mere affection when it comes to the sensitive souls who hang out behind a coffee shop in small-town Vermont, dreaming of writing the great American novel, or being loved by a girl, or agreeing on what the inevitable band they're in should be called. These might seem like trivial concerns, but they occupy us when we're young, even if our bodies have moved ahead more quickly than our hearts and minds.

To some extent, "The Aliens," which focuses on a pair of 30-ish slacker types named Jasper and KJ, and on Evan, the initially reticent young coffeehouse employee drawn to their banter, is about the great American state of arrested adulthood, that much-reported phenomenon wherein intelligent, liberal-arts types keep postponing any kind of reckoning.

Of course, we're not on the streets of Paris or the East Village here, we're in a New England town, where Bohemianism is not only lonely but also lacks the space in which to loiter. "The Aliens" is set entirely in an area behind the coffee emporium just past the Dumpster. Here, Jasper (played by Steve Haggard) and KJ (Brad Akin) make gentle fun of their junior (Evan is played by Michael Finley) while whiling away the hours strumming, scribbling and talking. They are ripe targets for satire, of course, but Baker, who grew up around guys like this, rather wants to ennoble their existential distress.

Aside from the affectionate way she argues for the dignity of these characters, Baker also forces the viewer to slow down.

I always remember an early episode of "This American Life," in which host Ira Glass, after following around a pack of teenagers, arrived at the conclusion that one of the most significant ways teenage lives differ from adult lives is the amount of time it takes them to get organized. Teenagers, Glass found, spend hours and hours waiting for one another to arrive.

Baker's characters are hardly teens — not in physical terms, anyway — but they waste plenty of time. And this hugely talented writer has that same inquisitive, analytic streak as Glass and makes the same push for human dignity. Who's to say these guys are wasting their time anymore than a banker is wasting his or her time? It all depends on the judge.

"The Aliens" needs a gentle, delicate production, and for the most part, it gets one here from the director Shade Murray, who forges quite a rich little show. Haggard is perhaps a little too wise and worldly for Jasper, but the performance is suffused with honesty. So is the work of Finley, a Northwestern University student who truly is pitch-perfect here as a shy, sensitive kid right on the cusp of that moment when, although we so rarely realize it at the time, we make crucial decisions about life paths that determine so much of our future. For "The Aliens" to work, you have to never quite know what Evan will become, and so it goes here.

Akin has the tougher role — his college-dropout KJ is a big talker with a weird blend of cultural ambition and personal insecurity. There are moments when Akin, who sports a huge beard, paints that particular picture with overly thick brush strokes, and it feels rather as if he might bust out of the entire play.

Akin ultimately keeps that in check — he pulls back at the last minute — but it's still a performance that needs some careful toning in a play in which feeling and truth and smallness are everything.

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter @chrisjonestrib

When: Through March 3

Where: A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells St.

Running time: 2 hours

Tickets: $25-$30 at 312-943-8722 or aredorchidtheatre.org

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
Related Content
  • Grateful Dead drummer dishes dirt, drug dependency in new book

    Grateful Dead drummer dishes dirt, drug dependency in new book

    As a founding member of the Grateful Dead, Bill Kreutzmann watched the world change from behind his drum kit, shoveling coal in the wildly tribal rhythm section as the Dead went from San Francisco underground curio to ground-breaking indie outfit, then progenitor of the improvisation-based rock...

  • Book comes out ahead of Grateful Dead farewell concerts in Chicago this weekend

    Book comes out ahead of Grateful Dead farewell concerts in Chicago this weekend

    The cliché that colors every good rock star story is “sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll." For the Grateful Dead, the trailblazing rock band known for its improvisational style, revelatory live shows and dedicated fanbase, there was that and so much more.

  • 10 best movies of 2015 so far

    10 best movies of 2015 so far

    The year’s half over! How did that happen? No idea. With six months of a good year of movies in the books, let’s see how the Top 10 list is looking, with a quote from each respective review. Note: There are a few I’ve seen that I really like that haven’t yet opened in Chicago, and those aren’t...

  • If you make less than $50,440, proposal could increase overtime pay

    If you make less than $50,440, proposal could increase overtime pay

    Nearly 5 million more Americans would qualify for overtime pay under new rules proposed Tuesday by the Obama administration, a long-anticipated move expected to affect a broad swath of salaried employees from store managers to social workers to restaurant shift supervisors.

  • Chicago's minimum wage increase attracting workers to city

    Chicago's minimum wage increase attracting workers to city

    Unlike previous summers, UniStaff is experiencing a spike in job applicants at its Little Village location, a trend the branch manager says is tied to the city's minimum wage increase to $10 per hour beginning Wednesday.

  • 'The Bachelorette' episode 7 recap: How many meltdowns can Shawn have in one week?

    'The Bachelorette' episode 7 recap: How many meltdowns can Shawn have in one week?

    Welcome to RedEye’s coverage of “The Bachelorette,” arguably the most misogynistic show on television! The format is pretty simple: Five women of RedEye each drafted five of the 25 competing men. Everyone gets one point for every man who gets through each week. If you ever want your daughter to...

Comments
Loading