LocationThe Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture Parking Lot 2719 Routh St. Dallas, TX 75201 Buy Tickets
DatesJune 6 thru June 8
Stefan Novinski’s production of Annie Baker’s The Aliens is a wonderful, bittersweet surprise, perhaps in no small part because once you see her delicate, layered work performed out-of-doors, you may not want to go back to faking fences or the night sky.
Novinski, founder of PlaySite, new theater group dedicated to producing “good plays in cool spaces,” directs the company’s debut piece with the help of two or three clip lights, a subtle, sensitive cast, and the natural soundtrack of car engines and drifting conversation from the various Uptown bars that surround the little oasis he and his crew carved out in the small, shaded parking lot behind the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. It’s a nice juxtaposition of human dramas playing out in decidedly different ways.
It helps that the play is set in an alley behind a coffee shop, a corner of the world that shouldn’t be beautiful but is, somehow, because of what the space means to our two wayward, 30-something souls. Jasper (Jason Cockburn) sits and smokes while KJ (David Novinski) practically vibrates with nervous energy, exercising the muscles in his face with every wide-eyed look. They’re both unshaven and generally unkempt, as if the effort of even wearing proper shoes with laces is just too much. KJ sings and sips tea we find out later is laced with shrooms. Jasper sulks until he finally spills his current existential crisis: he’s been dumped.
We learn about KJ and Jasper by way of natural, circular conversation, in fits and starts. The two are long-time high school buddies who’ve gone nowhere, for varying reasons, and so they spend their summer evenings hanging out with trash bins and old mops. KJ’s exactly the sort of odd bird who might find the freedoms of college exceedingly difficult, and he did, dropping out early and moving back to live with his mom. Jasper never even finished high school, but he worships Charles Bukowski, drifts around, and does seemingly sporadic work on his opus, a novel he’s titled Little Tigers Everywhere. It’s inspired, of course, by a Bukowski poem (Baker’s title, too, is derived from a Bukowski poem). Both of them might be geniuses, but we’ll never know because they’re such screw ups.
Their strange routine is interrupted by the shop’s new hire, the 17-year-old Evan (Johnathan Wilder, quite good), who happens upon their hangout while taking out the trash. He tries to get them to leave, but ends up befriending them instead. It’s one just one example of Baker’s extraordinary empathy for these two people, who, misfit toys in a world where loitering behind the coffee shop is wrong and bad, managed to find each other. There’s something so sweet and sympathetic about this idea, and Novinski and Cockburn tap into the protective rites and familiar routines of an old friendship quite well without inspiring the usual sort of exasperation we might feel for two adults who are neither gainfully employed nor even interested in something so pedestrian. This is what makes what happens in the second act, the quietly devastating twist, all the more tragic.
A note on seating: it is very limited, and many visitors in town for the Theater Communications Group conference are seeing the show tonight. Your last chance is Saturday, so please plan accordingly.