How to Keep an Alien
by John Stoltenberg
I can’t recall seeing another play by someone who came to playwrighting from standup, but I’ll not soon forget how I laughed my feckin head off at Sonya Kelly’s How to Keep an Alien.
Kelly, an Irish actor, fell crazy in love with an Australian woman named Kate when both were cast in a dreadful play. But Kate was on a visa that was about to expire (she’s the alien of the title), and Kelly, smitten, was desperate to keep Kate with her in Ireland. To do so under Irish law required that they document the genuineness of their relationship to the state and meet dozens of regulatory tests. Thus began two cockamamie years of red tape and go-rounds with Irish immigration. After it all ended, Kelly developed the saga as a theatrical comedy, with herself playing herself à la a standup routine but fully realized with set and sound and light cues and another actor in multiple roles. The show premiered at Tiger Dublin Fringe (Dublin’s fringe theatre festival), where it won Best Production 2014.
Now for the first time, the play is being performed by someone other than the author, in a rollickingly good production by Solas Nua, the accomplished company specializing in contemporary Irish arts. Two previous Solas Nua stagings, both dramatic works on serious themes (The Frederick Douglass Project and Misterman), bowled me over. I was bowled over by How to Keep an Alien too, but for a completely different reason, because though it touches on a serious theme (immigration), it’s mainly a rib-tickling comedy.
Just how funny is it? (Cue the rimshot.) The roots of the play in standup are evident in every riff, twist, and bit. As directed by Tom Story and as performed by Tonya Beckman (Sonya) and Nick Fruit (Justin the stage manager and others), How to Keep an Alien crackles with laughs like a string of firecrackers on a sizzling fuse.
A good deal of the show’s humor derives from the vivid wit of Kelly’s writing…
Speaking of miserable, I have been trying to get over a broken heart for the last six months. And I’m not over it yet. I read on the internet, it takes sixty-five takeaway pizzas to get over a broken heart, which is not easy . . . when you’re a celiac.
I took a can opener to my feelings, spilling forth a violent cocktail of passion and filth, aching regret and ravenous longing.
Another heaping of humor comes from Kelly’s epigrammatic insights into life…
Oh, God, Kate’s off to a party. She’s going on a tour and she’s off to a party, two of the most dangerous things you can ever do in theatre.
I hate camping. It defeats the purpose of evolution.
But what makes Kelly’s zingers zing is the extraordinary invention in Story’s deft direction, in Beckman’s insanely entertaining performance, and in Fruit’s dextrous comic scene partnering. Story and Beckman are of course DC legends. And Fruit, who owns the stage with his hilarious lounge-act solo, is a phenomenal up-and-comer. Combined, Beckman’s and Fruit’s nimble delivery of the laughs—vocally, facially, physically—is like when a headliner in a comedy club is killing it.
Yet running through How to Keep an Alien is the narrative arc of a beautifully moving love story. It’s implicitly a queer love story in that it’s between two women, but no attention is called to that fact. It doesn’t even get mentioned in their encounters with immigration. The play simply invites us to view two people in love, no lavender underlining needed. And we root for them with the sort of emotion we feel whenever true lovers in classic plays are kept apart.
How to Keep an Alien is a theatrical treat and a terrific twofer: It’s as feel-good as comedy from the heart…and as gratifying as guffaws from the gut.
Running Time: 75 minutes, with no intermission.