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It’s startling to see the actors come onstage for their curtain call at the end of Annie Baker‘s play about a trio of sad-sack employees at a rundown Massachusetts movie theater. For the preceding three-plus hours, we’ve become so immersed in their characters, so caught up in their mundane activities and verbally awkward interactions, that we’ve come to regard them as real in a way few theatrical productions can muster. It’s a testament to the extraordinary accomplishment of The Flick, now being given a commercial off-Broadway production after a controversial 2013 premiere at Playwrights Horizons and subsequently winning the Pulitzer Prize.
I say controversial because the original run caused no small ire among many of the theater’s subscribers, who complained so vociferously about the plotless play’s length and lack of dramatic action that its artistic director felt compelled to issue a letter defending the choice to produce the work. It would now appear that he’s having the last laugh.
That’s not to say that the grumblers didn’t have a point. Depicting the day-to-day activities of the characters as they go about cleaning popcorn, soda and more egregious substances from the floor of the theater’s auditorium while engaging in such activities as a game of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, only with different movie stars — Pauly Shore to Ian Holm, for example — the play has a pace that, depending on your degree of tolerance, could be described as leisurely or plodding. The lengthy pauses and silences are enough to make even Harold Pinter throw up his hands.
And yet, it all works, thanks to the incisive characterizations, sensitive direction and fully lived-in performances by the ensemble.
The play is set in one of the last single-screen movies theaters in Worcester County, Mass., which has clearly seen better days (you can practically feel the stickiness of the floor in David Zinn‘s perfectly grungy set). It begins with longtime, 35-year-old employee Sam (Matthew Maher) showing 20-year-old newbie and film geek Avery (Aaron Clifton Moten) the ropes, which really doesn’t take very long. So the men pass their time cleaning the theater in small talk, including a passionate debate about whether Avatar is a great film.
The third member of the group is twentysomething Rose (Louisa Krause), who has the coveted job of projectionist, despite Sam’s having been employed there significantly longer. It’s but one of the many causes of quiet tension among the group, as well as Sam’s hopeless crush on Rose, even though he thinks she’s a lesbian.
It’s hard to say more about the plot — not because it would involve spoilers, but rather because there isn’t much more of one. Goody two-shoes Avery has a crisis of conscience when pressed by his co-workers to accept the “dinner money” that they siphon off the ticket proceeds. Rose makes a sexual play for the repressed Avery, with predictably disastrous results. And the (unseen) owner of the theater plans to sell it, with Avery anguished at the thought that it would convert from projecting films in 35mm to digital.
The play is not so much a slice of life as a whole, heaping slab of it, depicting its characters’ idiosyncrasies and strained interactions with such precise detail that we feel as if we’re watching ants building a nest in real time. But Baker, previously responsible for such acclaimed works as The Aliens and Circle Mirror Transformation, is far from dispassionate, revealing an underlying tenderness and sympathy for her characters’ existential plights.
Under the expert direction of that playwright’s regular collaborator, Sam Gold, the ensemble, which also includes Alex Hanna in two minor roles, is pitch-perfect, bringing subtle layers of depth to what might have been stereotypical characters. Maher provides hilarious grace notes to the perpetually beleaguered Sam, who even suffers from a debilitating but somehow comic skin condition; Krause lets us see the vulnerability behind the seemingly self-assured Rose, whose idea of seduction is performing a frenzied solo dance; and Moten, displaying a perpetually closed-off physicality and vocal delivery, seems to grow in stature as his nerdy character faces a crisis that puts him at odds with his co-workers.
There are times when The Flick feels undeniably and willfully self-indulgent, most notably in an anguished phone monologue by Avery delivered in near darkness, which seems to go on forever. The play could probably have made the same points at far less length. But then we would have been deprived of the opportunity of spending so much time with these characters, who by the evening’s end have thoroughly burrowed under our skin.
Cast: Matthew Maher, Aaron Clifton Moten, Louisa Krause, Alex Hanna
Playwright: Annie Baker
Director: Sam Gold
Executive producers: Joey Parnes, Sue Wagner, John Johnson
Set & costume designer: David Zinn
Lighting designer: Jane Cox
Sound designer: Bray Poor
Presented by Scott Rudin, Stuart Thompson, Eli Bush, Roger Berlind, William Berlind, Roy Furman, Jon B. Platt, Ruth Hendel, The Shubert Organization, Stephanie P. McClelland, Catherine Adler, Say Alix & Una Jackman, Scott M. Delman, Dean Doumanian, Sonia Friedman, Tuchlin Bartner Productions, Heni Koenigsberg, Daryl Roth, True Love Productions and Playwrights Horizons
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