'The Aliens':

Gathered in a scene from "The Aliens" are (from left) Sam Henderson, Jeb Kreager, and Aubie Merrylees. They play a stoner, his buddy, and an employee of a coffee house behind which the two hang out.
Gathered in a scene from "The Aliens" are (from left) Sam Henderson, Jeb Kreager, and Aubie Merrylees. They play a stoner, his buddy, and an employee of a coffee house behind which the two hang out. (PAOLA NOGUERAS)
Posted: September 09, 2011

We don't usually hear the sound of silence when we're alone or with others - we hear our own thoughts. But in the theater, when we're focused on a world outside our own, silence can be poignant or funny, intense, rhythmic, or even startling. In Annie Baker's quirky play The Aliens, which opened Wednesday night in a meticulously acted production by Theatre Exile, the silence is downright risky.

And not always understandable. Baker, a young playwright whose three-guy drama was an Off-Broadway success last year, has written the simplest of plots, and I'm not sure whether she uses the silence she mandates in her script because she wants the audience to think something through, because she wants her characters to do so, or what. She's written that about a third of the two-act play should be performed in silence and that pauses should be up to 10 seconds - and those are the short ones.

Theatre Exile is staging the play at its pleasant Studio X, a South Philadelphia venue it runs mostly as a rehearsal space, and it's part of the current Live Arts Festival/Philly Fringe. The company has long been present in the Fringe experience; many years ago, it premiered Bruce Graham's The Philly Fan, a consideration of local sports that is a perennial, popping up on one local stage or another. That's a chatty piece, a place where silence is unwelcome.

While some of the silence in The Aliens makes sense, a lot of it seems meaningless. Director Matt Pfeiffer bows graciously to Baker's wishes; scenes fade slowly, and dialogue sometimes seems so understated, it's not there. Or maybe a plot's not there, not in the first act, in any case, which ends without us knowing why we've been invited to this party - I couldn't have told you at that point whether anything at all was happening in this play about a stoner and his author-buddy, who hang out in the trash-bin area in back of a New England coffee shop.

There, while talking about nothing and essentially loitering, they befriend a wallflower high school boy who's just begun to work at the shop and who carries the trash out past them regularly. Act Two, as quiet as the first half, builds up to a compelling ending, all the more muscular for its understatement.

While Pfeiffer allows The Aliens to mirror a certain alienation in its lethargy, he never lets it lapse. And besides, the production is striking for its three beautifully acted portrayals - Sam Henderson as the guy going nowhere, Jeb Kreager as his author friend going nowhere, and Aubie Merrylees as the high school student going who knows where.

As an ensemble, they play their characters off one another with intensity. And even when they say little of note, nothing that gives us anything to care about them for, Henderson, Kreager, and Merrylees make these outsiders hauntingly real.


The Aliens

Presented by Theatre Exile at Studio X, 1340 S. 13th St., through Sept. 18. Tickets: $20.

Information: 215-413-1318 or www.livearts-fringe.org.


Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727, hshapiro@phillynews.com, or #philastage on Twitter. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/howardshapiro. Hear his reviews at the Classical Network, www.wwfm.org.

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