Since her first play stunned audiences four years ago, Annie Baker, 31, has gone from obscurity to acclaim. In that time, critics have scraped away at her plays, trying to unearth what makes them so rich, so unsettling and, most of all, so real. Never mind that there’s much in her plays that’s more surrealistic than anything else. Take, for example, a moment in Third Rail’s deeply humane and quietly unnerving production of The Aliens
. KJ (Isaac Lamb), a bearlike 30-year-old, tells a story. At age 5, he was obsessed with the word “ladder” and repeated it incessantly, until his mother let him shout the word as often and as deafeningly as he needed. Lamb delivers a monologue—if it can be called that—composed of that single word. I began counting the number of repetitions and then lost track, finding myself hypnotized and horrified and heartbroken. The Aliens
, as with much of Baker’s work, is constrained but not contrived. It’s set in the scruffy backyard of a cafe, where KJ and Jasper (Chris Murray) gather. After Jasper, a Bukowski-reading chain-smoker, kicks over a chair, teenage employee Evan (Bryce Earhart) tries to shoo them away. It would be easy to say this irreverent yet warm duo teaches Evan about life and identity, but what unfurls is far more intricate, and far more tragic, than that. Under Tim True’s confident direction, the actors create intensely empathetic characters. Lamb nails the gentle comedy as well as his character’s twitchy discomfort. The tightly wound Murray will twist your insides into knots, and 16-year-old Earhart more than holds his own, his character carefully testing his words to best impress his older friends. Aside from occasional surges of language, the dialogue is elliptical and sparse. While some playwrights force characters to plow ahead with dialogue, Baker makes her characters wait. These empty spaces are remarkable—and also uncomfortable or tense or weird. Are they real? By play’s end, that question no longer matters.
2257 NW Raleigh St.Website: http://www.thirdrailrep.org/events.php?show=24