Theater Review - "The Aliens" is high-quality theater on a smaller scale

Pinch 'n' Ouch's spin Annie Baker's off-Broadway hit requires attention to detail

With all the splashy, dramatic musicals being performed on Atlanta's stages this summer, it can be easy to overlook a smaller-scale, quiet drama like Annie Baker's The Aliens being performed at Pinch 'n' Ouch Theatre. While it's not for everyone as there are no jazz hands or dance numbers — not to mention, all the action takes place in the back alley of a Vermont coffeehouse — fans of realistic, modern drama will appreciate the nuanced work taking place in this intimate setting.

Baker is one of New York's favorite playwrights of the past decade, and when The Aliens debuted off-Broadway in 2010 Charles Isherwood of the New York Times called it "a gentle and extraordinarily beautiful new play." The story centers on KJ (Pinch 'n' Ouch founder and Producing Artistic Director Grant McGowen), a college dropout passing his days in a medicated haze after a breakdown of sorts, and his friend and sometime bandmate Jasper (Andy Fleming), a Bukowski-quoting wannabe writer. The two hang out in the aforementioned back alley, where they befriend Evan (Tanner Gill), a naïve high school kid working at the shop.

Don't come in expecting a lot of plot; the joy of this piece is in the contrast between the KJ's slack-jawed stillness and Evan's nervous jitters, and watching how all three characters find a need and a way to communicate.

McGowen is an almost hypnotic stage persona; it's easy to understand how an outsider kid like Evan would develop a powerful man crush on KJ, even as the former delivers an ecstatic series of ridiculous ribbits during one of the musical numbers. He has the kind of good looks that make you think he couldn't possibly be interesting, but the cheekbones come along with a cagey physicality. He repeatedly folds his lanky frame into seemingly impossible, compact positions on a welcome mat, only to explode later and knock over furniture like an overgrown puppy.

Gill, a graduate of SCAD-Atlanta with a degree in advertising design is making his Atlanta stage debut in this production, manifests just the right amount of physical discomfort in a body language of blinks, bounces, and fidgets without going over the top. The story does not glorify KJ and Jasper's existence; when KJ rhapsodizes about a friend who now lives on a "wind farm," both Jasper and Evan separately point out that this isn't a realistic option. But at the same time, Baker does not belittle the contributions that these characters make to Evan's lonely life. There's a wistfulness and an awareness as KJ tells Evan "You're gonna go far," even as KJ himself seems trapped in place.

Again, if you have a short attention span this is not the show for you. The Aliens is less driven by plot and more like an exploration of the spaces between the steps in a dance — for many theater-goers, it's those opportunities and connections where art really lives.

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