Looking at the set of Annie Baker’s THE FLICK at Playwrights Horizons is a surreal experience. Meticulously recreating the theater of a rundown one-screen movie house, David Zinn’s gorgeously drab set, replete with grungy aisle carpet, stained ceiling tiles, and worn seat cushions, consists of rows of chairs facing the audience, raked up to the back wall containing a door to the lobby and a window to the projection booth. Our point of view is as if we were sitting in the screen, looking out over the movie house theater.
The effect is a mirroring: sitting in a theater looking at a theater which is looking back at us.
Such an effect is wholly appropriate for this beautiful hyper-realist play: unconcerned with contrived tension or peaks and valleys of action, THE FLICK sets itself up as a mirror on reality, crafting characters who are moving in their very mundane ordinariness. It is a play that finds poetry in the everyday, through and amongst the utterances of “like,” “I mean,” and “whatever” that pepper the characters’ speech as much as they do everyday speech. Most of all, THE FLICK is a play about balancing the tenuous expectations of ourselves, other people, and society, calling into question the value and effect of ideals.
As the play begins, the lights in both theaters dim, a grandiose film score plays loudly, and the film projector runs, casting unseen images out over the audience. The sequence last for a full two minutes: just darkness, music, and flashing light. This is a signal of what is to come: far more concerned with the psychological and emotional tensions of its characters than in high drama, THE FLICK is not in a hurry to get anywhere, least of all to some dramatic climax.
Sam (Matthew Maher) and Avery (Aaron Clifton Moten) eventually enter the playing space with brooms and dustpans to sweep up after a movie has let out. It is Avery’s first day, and Sam is teaching him how to do “the walkthrough,” the standard isle-by-isle cleanup of popcorn kernels and discarded paper cups. Their dialogue is precisely how one would imagine the dialogue of two people who have just met, sharing instruction in a menial and fairly straightforward activity: sporadic, halting, and awkward. They sweep more than they talk, what they do discuss is largely inconsequential, and when their task is done, the scene ends as unceremoniously as it began.
“Good God,” muttered the woman sitting behind me at Saturday’s matinee, “I hope the next three hours are more fun than this.” The fact that Baker once answered an interviewer asking for her heroes with, “Chekhov. Chekhov. Chekhov. Chekhov.,” should make it clear enough that that this woman was in for a long afternoon. Like her Russian predecessor, Baker shows little interest in dressing up the quotidian in service of fun or spectacle (although THE FLICK is quite funny in a number of places, and contains one enormously fun dance number). Instead, she shows the courage to dwell in the intricacies of the everyday, to explore the dynamics of stasis and silence, and to find life’s real drama in what is not being said or done. “Where do they get their nerve,” another chatty audience member grumbled as the play slowly wound to its conclusion, “it’s twenty-to-six for Christ’s sake!” These folks’ poor theater etiquette notwithstanding, their sentiment is telling of the stalwart resistance Baker, director Sam Gold, and THE FLICK have towards theater convention.
They get their nerve from their comfort in the moments in life most artists want to gloss over without acknowledging and, while it is fair to say that the technique can be alienating to those who find greater comfort in the conventions that THE FLICK resists, that nerve meticulously excavates great beauty and moving human drama in the pure ordinariness of language and action.
The play follows the burgeoning comfort levels (I hesitate to say “friendship”) between Avery and Sam as they continue to sweep the floors, sell tickets and concessions, and share an interest in movies. Sam is thirty five, white, and stuck in the dead-end movie theater job, while Avery is twenty, black, and working for the summer before returning to college, so their job and their movie conversations fill the spaces of the many social and cultural gaps that separate them. Filling out the community of this theater’s employees is Rose (Louisa Krauss), the twenty-four-year-old white projectionist in black pants, combat boots, and baggy band t-shirts over whom Sam pines and by whom Avery seems intimidated.
The drama between the three comes in fits and starts—Sam feels betrayed when Rose teaches Avery and not him to run the projector; Avery is uncomfortable with the low-level profit skimming tradition of the theater’s employees; sexual tension arises and dissipates; each of the characters has a spotted past, even young Avery—and it is all underscored by the uncertain fate of The Flick (the theater from which the play takes its title). The movie enthusiast Avery chose to work at The Flick because it is one of the last remaining theaters in the area using a film rather than digital projector, but the owner is on the cusp of selling the theater to a businessman who will likely convert to digital. This danger is yet another in a litany of threats to Avery’s idealism, as the play’s youngest character becomes the focus of its examination of the tension between ideals and reality.
The performers here are given the time and space to explore these characters fully, and all succeed admirably. Rose is not simply the angsty, tough girl misanthrope, and Sam is not simply the pitiable minimum-wage loner; instead, both become complex portraits of the many tensions and drives that buttress such simplistic social markers. As perhaps the play’s primary focus, Avery is its most fascinating portrait, and Aaron Clifton Moten shines in a performance that locates great depth and complexity in its subdued restraint.
Sensitive, insightful, and regularly funny, THE FLICK explores the slow passing of the everyday with great patience and theatrical courage. Appropriating the distinctively penetrating gaze of Chekhov, Baker examines with great subtlety the human emotions flowing in an undercurrent of the everyday. THE FLICK may open with the grandiose score of a blockbuster film, but it quickly juxtaposes that grandeur with a couple of guys struggling to make small talk as they sweep the floors, and spends the next three hours troubling notions of larger-than-life drama. Time usually passes uneventfully, after all, a realization that THE FLICK finds beauty in embracing.
By Annie Baker
Directed by Sam Gold
February 15 – March 31, 2013
416 West 42nd Street
New York, NY 10036