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Theater review by David Cote. Playwrights Horizons (see Off Broadway). By Annie Baker. Dir. Sam Gold. With Matthew Maher, Aaron Clifton Moten, Louisa Krause, Alex Hanna. 3hrs. One intermission.
In the beginning, there is light in Annie Baker’s The Flick. And it is good. Well, not good; kind of irritating, actually. A bright beam, simulating a film projector, strobes at the audience for two actionless minutes while a Bernard Herrmann score shakes its modernist fist at us. After this light-and-sound prelude ends, and queasy, fluorescent lights snap up on an empty movie theater for the first scene, you see dancing dots as your eyes adjust. How apt that a play about lacking vision—moral, personal and aesthetic—starts off by blurring ours.
Directed (like most of Baker’s world premieres) by Sam Gold, The Flick will separate the author’s casual fans from her ardent devotees. First, it’s roughly twice as long as Baker’s usual sad-and-lonely human dioramas, flouting the unwritten law that such formal experiments should not run longer than 90 minutes. Second, Baker and Gold allow even more dead air to surround the countless pauses and ellipses that punctuate the characters’ sometimes loaded, sometimes perfunctory dialogue. Arid expanses of stage time unfold wordlessly as workers at a run-down movie house in Worcester County, Massachusetts, dutifully sweep up popcorn or avoid conversation that could lead to painful personal details. It’s high drama when a tapioca-pudding spill is discovered in one of the rows. There are many laughs, to be sure; Baker’s almost pitiless gaze at people’s foibles and verbal tics naturally produces waves of cringe comedy. But there are just as many moments of confusion, despair and inchoate longing.
The Flick focuses on the growing interdependence of three employees. Sam (Maher), 35 years old and living at home, is a congenital loser who struggles visibly to maintain a positive outlook. Rose (Krause) has the coveted job of projectionist, but she’s a bored, emotionally messy young woman with an unsightly green dye job. College student Avery (Moten) is the newbie, a withdrawn movie snob with Asperger’s-level recall when it comes to playing Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. A cloud of romantic malaise hovers over the trio: Sam pines for Rose, who has eyes for Avery, who just wants to learn how to run the projector. And lowering over all is obsolescence; it’s only a matter of time before this shabby celluloid holdout gets gobbled up by a digital chain.
Instead of plot, Baker gives us behavior and subtext. A series of blackout scenes displays Avery’s training, his initiation into the establishment’s tradition of skimming off the box office, Rose’s mortifying attempt to seduce him and Sam’s increasingly pathetic attempts to get Rose to notice him. We would tire of these flawed souls—each retarded, in the strictest sense of the word—were Baker not so sympathetic or the actors so perfectly cast and a joy to watch. It’s particularly thrilling to see Maher, a trouper who has been playing oddballs for more than a decade, create a bittersweet portrait of an average, decent guy who still undermines himself at every step.
Despite the inherent strangeness of Baker and Gold’s granular close-ups, The Flick is essentially a coming-of-age/breaking-away tale of youth getting wise to the world. It’s not exactly classical in structure, but it has a beginning, middle and end. Some characters change; others don’t. Best of all: This hypnotic, heartbreaking micro-epic about movies and moving on is irreducibly theatrical; it could never be adapted for the big screen.—David Cote
Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote