Aliens All: Three Lonely Men Pontificate Amid Cigarette Smoke in this Crazy Universe

The Aliens

Through Feb. 23 at Dobama Theatre, 2340 Lee Rd., Cleveland Heights, 216-932-6838,

In a grungy little courtyard behind a Vermont coffee shop, littered with trash cans, an old picnic table, milk crates, empty drywall buckets and the dead remnants of a little flower plot, accessible only by climbing a wooden fence, a couple of thirty something star-gazers pass their days. KJ and Jasper banter inarticulately, get high, play music, commiserate over broken relationships, improvise funny and soulful songs and read their unfinished, erotic novels. At 31, life is just beginning to burn as bright as it ever will. It's the Fourth of July.

Wandering in, 17-year-old Evan is instantly drawn to the musings and poetic aspirations of Jasper and KJ, who strike Evan as mysterious wizards.

Each is steadfastly lonely. Each harbors a trembling yearning to belong. Each, in his own way, has split from his friends, lovers, and families. No religion; no abiding philosophy; no patriotic passions; no personal commitments; no families to bind them. Ultimate narcissists, they marvel at their superability. They self-medicate, proclaim themselves geniuses, enable their delusions, invoke a magical ménage a trois - three aliens in a little coffee-shop ship, alone in the universe.

The Aliens, a play by OBIE-Award winning playwright Annie Baker, and Dobama's latest offering of contemporary fare, dignifies these discussions by giving them to these lonely explorers of the universe. There are no Carl Sagans in this group; rather, there are three gritty pathfinders searching for meaning in the universe. What emerges is an intelligent and tender production.

Alexander V. Thompson as KJ dominates the action with an appealing childlike vulnerability. He is light on his feet, dancing about the stage with athletic verve, fully committed in gesture, breath and sound. Without his earnest enthusiasm for Jasper's world-weary cynicism, and his loving embrace of Evan's budding attempts at growing up, the brittle friendships between these characters could never endure. Thompson's performance is the glue that holds things together.

Matt O'Shea plays Jasper with a seething intelligence. His gaze never falters as he wanders aimlessly looking for his footing. For him, any idea of settling down is like trying to live on a wind farm - ducking, winding, trying to hang on to dangerous whirling blades. With a nod to Chekov, Jasper lives like the Three Sisters' Captain Solyony. He is obsessed with American poet Charles Bukowski, known in the '80's as the "laureate of American lowlife." O'Shea brings us a mind strewn with these musings as he channels Bukowski, down to the way he holds his cigarette.

As Evan, the lackluster busboy, Joseph Dunn delivers a subtle and generous performance, without guile or unnecessary theatricality. He catches the hyperrealism of the play just so. We can see his mind working as we see him hilariously taste KJ's bitter psilocybin brew.

Director Nathan Motta wraps his empathetic arms around the play keeping everyone gently on track and yet allowing the actors room to create, improvise and discover. There are a few places where his generosity falters. The elongated pauses, inexplicably demanded by the playwright, are staged with a bizarre stillness. Actors pose, trying to comment on the action, smoke trickling slowly out of a mouth or hands held unnaturally on the chin as a technique to begin and end the beat. The pause often has the effect of a documentary photograph. This approach tends to pull us out of the play.

These are quibbles, though. Motta is a fine director. The bulk of the play clearly proves this. He has done a beautiful job pulling the superb technical design team together; lights, set, costume, and sound. He has developed a creative mood that has allowed the formation of an ensemble - a rarity in the theatre. If there are flaws, they simply add to the personal uniqueness of his vision.

Finally the fireworks begin. They can't see them, they can only hear. KJ grabs a sparkler as the explosions rock closer and closer, deafening. The sparkler is lit and he dances around the stage: up on a chair, leaping across to the table, twirling the sparkling light high above his head. His hands rise as far as they can go. Then in terror, he stops. The sparkler is running low.

"Oh, no!" he shouts, "It's going out! It's going out!"

It's not such an odd play after all. Their brief lives are just like ours. Aliens all.

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