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Lingering in a life at the coffee shop

Most playwrights become fond of their characters. Annie Baker, whose sweet and beautiful little play "The Aliens" is playing for the first time in Chicago at A Red Orchid Theatre, clearly goes beyond mere affection when it comes to the sensitive souls who hang out behind a coffee shop in small-town Vermont, dreaming of writing the great American novel, or being loved by a girl, or agreeing on what the inevitable band they're in should be called. These might seem like trivial concerns, but they occupy us when we're young, even if our bodies have moved ahead more quickly than our hearts and minds.

To some extent, "The Aliens," which focuses on a pair of 30-ish slacker types named Jasper and KJ, and on Evan, the initially reticent young coffeehouse employee drawn to their banter, is about the great American state of arrested adulthood, that much-reported phenomenon wherein intelligent, liberal-arts types keep postponing any kind of reckoning.

Of course, we're not on the streets of Paris or the East Village here, we're in a New England town, where Bohemianism is not only lonely but also lacks the space in which to loiter. "The Aliens" is set entirely in an area behind the coffee emporium just past the Dumpster. Here, Jasper (played by Steve Haggard) and KJ (Brad Akin) make gentle fun of their junior (Evan is played by Michael Finley) while whiling away the hours strumming, scribbling and talking. They are ripe targets for satire, of course, but Baker, who grew up around guys like this, rather wants to ennoble their existential distress.

Aside from the affectionate way she argues for the dignity of these characters, Baker also forces the viewer to slow down.

I always remember an early episode of "This American Life," in which host Ira Glass, after following around a pack of teenagers, arrived at the conclusion that one of the most significant ways teenage lives differ from adult lives is the amount of time it takes them to get organized. Teenagers, Glass found, spend hours and hours waiting for one another to arrive.

Baker's characters are hardly teens — not in physical terms, anyway — but they waste plenty of time. And this hugely talented writer has that same inquisitive, analytic streak as Glass and makes the same push for human dignity. Who's to say these guys are wasting their time anymore than a banker is wasting his or her time? It all depends on the judge.

"The Aliens" needs a gentle, delicate production, and for the most part, it gets one here from the director Shade Murray, who forges quite a rich little show. Haggard is perhaps a little too wise and worldly for Jasper, but the performance is suffused with honesty. So is the work of Finley, a Northwestern University student who truly is pitch-perfect here as a shy, sensitive kid right on the cusp of that moment when, although we so rarely realize it at the time, we make crucial decisions about life paths that determine so much of our future. For "The Aliens" to work, you have to never quite know what Evan will become, and so it goes here.

Akin has the tougher role — his college-dropout KJ is a big talker with a weird blend of cultural ambition and personal insecurity. There are moments when Akin, who sports a huge beard, paints that particular picture with overly thick brush strokes, and it feels rather as if he might bust out of the entire play.

Akin ultimately keeps that in check — he pulls back at the last minute — but it's still a performance that needs some careful toning in a play in which feeling and truth and smallness are everything.

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter @chrisjonestrib

When: Through March 3

Where: A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells St.

Running time: 2 hours

Tickets: $25-$30 at 312-943-8722 or aredorchidtheatre.org

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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