Review: Firehouse’s “The Aliens”

Strong cast and technical elements can’t help “The Aliens” phone home.
by David Timberline

There’s a respected theatrical tradition of plays short on plot that still manage to be engaging, even thrilling, stage experiences, with Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” perhaps the prime example. But the Firehouse Theatre’s latest, “The Aliens,” is no “Godot,” mostly because playwright Annie Baker is no Beckett.

This is a play of awkward silences and drawn-out pauses, virtually free of coherent philosophizing and marred by an incongruous tragedy. It’s to the credit of the Firehouse and director Gary C. Hopper that the production has a superbly appointed set designed by Phil Hayes, lovely lighting effects by Andrew Bonniwell, and a particularly adroit sound design by Joey Luck. But these technical elements are in service of a story that goes nowhere and goes there slowly. It’s rare to see so much artistic effort expended in support of so little.

Many will rejoice to see the slacker esthetic so meticulously explored, with the play’s focus on two 20-somethings who spend their days hanging out behind a New England coffee shop. Jasper (Ben Hill) is a wannabe novelist who adores the work of Charles Bukowski, and K.J. (Maxwell Moore) is a troubled genius and college dropout who shows sporadic symptoms of mental illness. Their sparse conversations give indications of a more interesting past, but in many ways they could be just two more pieces of flotsam drifting through a back alley.

Almost inadvertently, they pull teenage coffee shop employee Evan (Denver Crawford) into their orbit. The awkward Evan is apparently friendless and, though originally tasked with shooing the slackers away, he finds comfort in their unassuming and welcoming nature. The three misfits eventually spend a low-key Fourth of July evening together, creating a tentative connection that soon will be challenged by an unexpected change.

The empty spaces in Baker’s script provide a lot of room for the actors to get very comfortable in their characters and each of them does an exceptional job. With his childlike demeanor and unexpected outbursts, Moore conveys an impish charm that’s impossible not to like. Hill’s Jasper has more of an edge but also shows a winning congeniality, particularly during the songs that he and Moore sing during their Independence Day celebration. Crawford is a delight as Evan, tentative but curious, conveying the clumsy self-consciousness of adolescence perfectly.

Director Hopper is fantastic at finding the rhythms of laid-back interactions, with their non sequiturs, fractured dialogues and other idiosyncrasies. Every scene is enhanced by complementary technical elements, with Bonniwell’s lights nicely depicting fireworks, Luck’s sound design capturing the ambient murmurs from inside the coffee shop, and costume designer Elizabeth Hopper further defining the characters through messages on their T-shirts.

But while the ambiance is pitch-perfect, “Aliens” sets the table without offering anything significant to eat. It’s like “Godot” without the philosophical underpinnings or “The Breakfast Club” without its sense of character progression. A creeping sadness and a touch of cruelty undermine the idle good cheer and, in the absence of much plot, you may be left wondering what exactly is the point.

“The Aliens” plays through May 16 at the Firehouse Theatre, 1609 W. Broad St. Tickets and information are available at

[ Subscribe to the comments on this story ]

Rosé Is the New Chardonnay

Although rosé is easy to find and countless articles have been written extolling its virtues, it’s still a misunderstood wine. Back in the old days (the ’70s and ’80s), it was a sweet sipper characterized mostly as a “woman’s wine.” You know, because women like pink, right?

In Europe, there never was that stigma. European women drink rosé, yes, but so do plenty of men. It’s the essence of summer, and it can range from a deep strawberry hue to a pale, almost apricot shade.

“Rosé is usually just the extra-short maceration of red grapes,” Secco Wine Bar’s Julia Battaglini says. Gently pressing immature red grapes is another method. Mixing white grapes with red? Back in 2009, the European Union tried to legalize the practice, but the French were so horrified, that they stopped it in its tracks.

Why were we saddled with such sad pink wine for so many years? “The wines of my youth were skewed sweet out of fear,” she says. “Are you afraid? No, you are not. Therefore rosés of the present are mostly dry.”

Battaglini will lead Secco’s 2015 Rosé Rumble, a now five-year-old rosé wine crawl through Carytown, with additional stops in the Museum District, May 15. Attendees will start the crawl at Amuse at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 200 N. Boulevard, at 5:30 p.m. Afterward, you can hang with your new friends at the Room at Secco and taste more than 14 different 2014 rosés.

“Dress comfortably. Bring cash if you’re in a hurry,” Battaglini advises. “Wear comfy shoes. Wear pink! And be cool with chaos.”

You can RSVP by following this link.

[ Subscribe to the comments on this story ]

Valerie Strauss on NPE: “Teachers of the World, Unite! You Have Nothing to Lose But Your Rubrics!

This is a terrific column by Valerie Strauss describing the work of the Network for Public Education. I wish she had been there to share the excitement of the 600+ education activists from across the nation–teachers, parents, students, retired teachers, principals, school board members. Wherever they came from, they feel isolated and powerless as the […]

McAuliffe’s Bad Rep as an Environmentalist

Gov. Terry McAuliffe may be drumming up jobs, but in the process, he’s alienating Virginia’s green community.

McAuliffe is the focus of a number of protests and bitterly critical blog postings by such environmentalists as Ivy Main, a Washington-area lawyer who specializes in green issues, and the left-leaning blog Blue Virginia.

Their biggest criticisms involve:

  • McAuliffe’s support for Dominion’s $5 billion Atlantic Coast pipeline, which would take natural gas recovered by controversial fracking methods from Northern West Virginia through much of Virginia and on to North Carolina.
  • His support for the Mountain Valley natural gas pipeline project in Southwest Virginia, which likewise would take fracked West Virginia gas southeast.
  • His criticisms of the proposed Clean Power Plan by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The plan would reduce carbon dioxide emissions, believed to contribute to climate change. McAuliffe has sided with Dominion Resources and its complaints that the proposal would increase electricity rates by 2030, although a regional electricity exchange and environmental groups such as the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Natural Resources Defense Council say it will create jobs and modify rates.
  • McAuliffe has touted continued use of natural gas and nuclear at the expense of renewable energy sources and conservation.
  • McAuliffe was abrupt with a green activist at a conference as depicted by this video.

Environmental activists favored McAuliffe when he first ran for governor in 2009 because he supported renewables and was skeptical about proposals to drill for oil off the Virginia coast. While McAuliffe says he still backs renewables, Virginia remains far behind its neighbors, such as West Virginia and North Carolina, in their development. He’s flip-flopped on offshore drilling and now favors the practice.

On the pipelines, which are being bitterly opposed by local residents angry at Dominion’s hardball surveying tactics, McAuliffe insists that spur lines form the main pipelines will create new industries and jobs in parts of the state that badly need them.

He cited Nelson County as one area where the protests against Dominion’s project are among the strongest. But Nelson is a rural spot known for dairy farms, bed and breakfasts and big resorts such as Wintergreen, not heavy industry.

Ivy Main, meanwhile, has been critical about McAuliffe touting natural gas and nuclear while saying it’s not his concern to worry about risks. While it gives off less carbon than coal, natural gas emits dangerous methane with environmental and safety consequences. The likeliest spot for a new nuclear reactor is at Dominion’s North Anna station, which was built on a geologic fault line and was shut down for months after a 2011 earthquake.

[ Subscribe to the comments on this story ]