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'Aliens' playwright Annie Baker takes in Old Town

January 17, 2013

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The Old Town Ale House, a 55-year-old dive bar with a long history of literary associations, is the unofficial clubhouse of A Red Orchid Theatre. Throughout the history of the venerable company, which was founded 20 years ago and now is perhaps best known for its ensemble member Michael Shannon, actors have repaired here after rehearsal.

Actually, Red Orchid company members tend to show up here most nights whether or not they actually are in a cast. You can see them pausing outside, peering through the windows to see who might be there.

On a recent Thursday around midnight, the usual suspects — the likes of Guy Van Swearingen, Kirsten Fitzgerald, Brett Neveu — had a ringer in their midst, the rising New York playwright Annie Baker, who seemed to be drinking in the Old Town scene with a mixture of delight and surprise.

It's not unusual for New York-based scribes to show up in Chicago when someone is doing their plays, but it remains a novelty for the 31-year-old Baker, best known for the play "Circle Mirror Transformation," for a Chicago theater to be staging her work.

It was striking how well the warm, soft-spoken, contemplative, easygoing Baker seemed to fit in — sitting cross-legged on one of the benches, knocking back drinks and furrowing her brow in the direction of the Ale House's famous collection of provocative artworks. She seemed happy to receive the group of actors, writers and directors who hovered around her. She looked very much like one of them herself.

"You know," she said, "I can always tell which actors are playing which roles in my plays even before they tell me who they are playing. I just know from looking at them."

A few more actors stopped by. "I am so delighted," she said, without a single note of the disingenuous, "that a company with this kind of ensemble history is doing my play."

The notion came up that she write a new work for this company. "I should," she said, firmly, making everyone believe that it might just happen.

Baker's sense of who is playing her characters surely flows from the unusually personal nature of those characters. On Monday night, A Red Orchid opens "The Aliens," Baker's 2010 drama that shared the Obie Award for best new play with her own "Circle Mirror Transformation," which was seen in Chicago in the Richard Christiansen Theater at the Biograph in 2011. Baker has yet to write much more. "My career is still so young," she said at one point, when asked about her preoccupations as a writer.

And that's true. So far, it includes "Body Awareness" (which premiered off-Broadway in 2008); "Circle Mirror"; an adaptation of Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya" (what playwright does not have an adaptation of Chekhov?) that premiered last summer at the Soho Rep in New York; and "The Aliens." But the critical acclaim Baker has enjoyed is well out of proportion with the length of her resume.

Set in the backyard of a coffee shop in small-town Vermont, "The Aliens" is the story of a pair of young slackers who once had a band but couldn't hold it together and are now struggling to find their place in the world. Slackers are typically the objects of satire or, at least, self-aware humor. But what strikes you most when you read the script is the compassion for the characters. Baker says the young men in the play are based on guys she knew growing up among the kids of hippies in Amherst, Mass., which she describes as "a very unusual town." Half her friends, she said, were in some kind of band.

Baker creates her characters as fragile beings, and a sense of vulnerability suffuses her writing. At one point at the Old Town Ale House, she recalled how a group of Juilliard School students came to an early performance of "Circle Mirror," a play set in a community drama class. They roared with what they thought was supportive laughter, perceiving the work as a takedown of pretentious theater jargon and the nomenclature of the pseudo-spiritual acting class. In fact, Baker said, she had not intended the play as a satire at all, but a respectful look at "this other world of theater, a world where the people who are doing it are doing it for their own benefit."

Baker was in Chicago, she said, during a "brief window of opportunity" before she was needed by the director Sam Gold, who tends to direct the world premieres of her plays, for rehearsals of "The Flick," the latest Baker play, slated to premiere Feb. 15 at Playwrights Horizons in New York.

"It's set in an old movie theater, one that still uses the old prints," she said, "and it's about the ushers who clean up after the movies." It's the kind of a job a sensitive young soul might land, between writing songs and drinking beers.

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter @ChrisJonesTrib

'The Aliens'

When: In previews; opens Jan. 21 and runs through March 3

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

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