HEY, ALL THE CURRENT AND FORMER SMOKERS out there: Do you remember why you started smoking? Do you remember which TV show or movie, which family member or older friend convinced you it might be a good idea to ignore your body's gag reflex long enough to inhale burning plant bits through a paper tube?
In Third Rail's production of The Aliens, we get to witness the exact moment a young man decides to be a smoker. Pulling a cigarette from a blue pack of Spirits forges a contract of hero-worship, coming-of-age, and yearning to be something—anything—else.
The Aliens is about two 30-something dudes who hang out at a picnic table behind a coffee shop, playing music and reciting Bukowski and chain-smoking American Spirits. Jasper (Chris Murray) and KJ (Isaac Lamb) are the only species of human imaginable who could genuinely want to model themselves on Bukowski—and the only person who might enthusiastically model himself on these fuck-ups is a teenager.
Enter Evan (Bryce Earhart), a high schooler who works at the coffee shop. After he tries and fails to kick Jasper and KJ out, he's drawn into their orbit, developing a worshipful attachment to the chain-smoking, brooding Jasper. KJ has mental health issues, Jasper is intermittently homeless, and Evan has to leave town for band camp—the scales of privilege and life experience are wildly askew, but the moment Evan accepts a cigarette from Jasper is the moment he decides he wants these men to accept him, that there is something in their recklessness and lack of caring that he wishes to emulate.
Earhart gives a ridiculously good performance as the high school-aged Evan. He's uncertain and awkward; desperate to fit in but principled, too—"a good kid," he might be called, and one for whom life will no doubt improve after high school. When he shouts at his mother for daring to ask what he'd like for dinner, it's one of the most authentic teenaged moments you're ever going to see onstage. (Live performance is not particularly well known for its lifelike representation of young people... except for Fame, that's totally accurate.)
At intermission, I wasn't sure about The Aliens. I couldn't tell where it was going—what it was about. Only later did it occur to me that this not knowing meant I was in the presence of a confident, superbly constructed script, one that lays its groundwork patiently, and reveals its intentions without handholding or pandering. The CoHo theater is a great, intimate little space, and one we should appreciate all the more now that the Theater! Theatre! building is closing—because it gives us a chance to see, up close and personal, top-notch shows like this one.