Horse Head Theater Takes The Aliens Behind the Bar for a Unique Experience

The set-up:

Youngish playwright Annie Baker now has a third second play of hers produced in Houston, after Circle Mirror Transformation at the Alley Theatre and Body Awareness from the Stark Naked Theatre Company, as the Horse Head Theatre Company produces The Aliens. This work features two slackers and a coffee-shop busboy - the slackers hang out at the break area at the back of the coffee-shop - and Horse Head presents the work at Boheme Bar in Montrose, creating a site-specific environment.

The execution:

This is the kind of play where fine actors have to seduce an audience into rapt attention, since vivid actions or melodrama aren't on the menu. Fortunately, Horse Head has cast such actors. Drake Simpson plays Jasper, a beginning novelist who has a room somewhere, and Kevin Jones plays KJ, songwriter of sorts, who lives with his mother, is a college dropout, and takes meds to keep his ship on an even keel. You may think you have met them on SNL, but Simpson and Jones provide authentic, interesting characterizations, not satiric ones.

Matt Lents plays Evan, still in high school, shy and inarticulate, whose dialogue consists largely of "I don't know. No. Maybe", "I probably should be going inside now" and "Cool!" He steals the show, partly because he is a bridge from the semi-somnolent arena of slackerville into a bustling world beyond, but also because he conveys a vivid sense of an active interior mind racing with undiscovered needs, primarily for a friend. And now he has two.

There are some events in the work, a major one that happens offstage, and some minor exchanges that blossom quietly. They are better left for audiences to discover for themselves, but the theme of mentorship, even from those not usually perceived as role models, is paramount.

Some theater philosophers believe film holds up a mirror to life, while theater holds up a magnifying glass; playwright Baker rejects this approach, and holds up a mirror. The result is a fascinating evening, aided enormously by the setting, where large garbage cans nearby are integrated into the action. Baker has a keen ear for the rhythm of speech, and an empathetic heart, foregoing judgment, and this goes a long way toward the play's success. But is it enough?

Is the deliberate low key delicacy a security blanket against exposing the ravaging beast of human nature - not you, of course - but behind the white picket fence of conventionality may lie a jungle of desperation. This play is chamber music, not operatic; that is Baker's clear intention, in which she has succeeded admirably.

The play has been widely admired for adhering to Aristotelian theories of ideal theater; this is either bilgewater or hype. The work has serious structural flaws: a key event is referenced but not seen, a compelling character disappears much too soon, an exchange suggests that male bonding may have evolved into love, but this is immediately dropped without being explored.

Baker is fortunate in having Horse Head mount it - Kevin Holden helmed it - they have given it a loving production, and its many virtues shine brightly on the outdoor stage, aided by projections that give the date and time, and work well. The actors are miked, and this worked for the first Act, but less so on opening night for Act Two - hopefully, this will be remedied. If rain threatens, one can verify that a performance is on by emailing: 1kevin.jones@gmail.com.

The verdict:

A unique theater experience is provided yet again by the Horse Head Theatre Company, as it stages a play, set in the back of a coffee shop, in the back of Bar Boheme, and gifted actors find its heart and bring it to vibrant life.

The Aliens continues through September 7, from the Horse Head Theatre Company, at Bar Boheme, 307 Fairview. For information or ticketing, call 646-942-6837 or contact www.horseheadtheatre.org.

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