As The Flick, Annie Baker’s latest play, begins, a bright shaft of flickering light – a projector’s beam – shines above the audience’s head as a grandiose movie score plays. We can’t make out the images, only alternating patterns of color; it soon becomes clear that we, in a way, are the screen, as we face the ten or so shabby rows of a rundown movie theatre in Worcester County, MA, which will, for the next three hours and change, host three mostly malcontent theatre employees who sweep between rows, run the projector, shore away money when the theatre owner isn’t looking, and struggle not just with who they are but with how to connect to one another in an ever-changing world the puzzle pieces of which they can’t quite piece together.
Now playing at Playwrights Horizons, Baker’s play is perhaps her most challenging to date but also, in many ways, her most rewarding. As in The Aliens, which played at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in 2010, Baker uses the spaces between dialogue to her advantage. Unlike that play, which took place in the derelict backyard of a coffee shop, however, the playwright evokes a stronger, more symbolically charged atmosphere with The Flick, adding mood and texture to the proceedings and informing the characters’ journeys as the changes the movie theatre (also called The Flick) is subject to are charted.
The denizens of the Flick – at least they all seem as if they’re of the place, not merely its keepers – are a disparate bunch. Sam (Matthew Maher), who, at 35, is the oldest and longest-standing employee, mostly just sweeps the floors, though he dreams of running the projector. That job has been given instead to Rose (Louisa Krause), a quirky college grad with green-tinged hair who also happens to be the object of his affection. The staid dynamic of these two stalwarts is interrupted by the arrival of Avery (Aaron Clifton Moten, assuredly awkward), a local college student and film nut who struggles with his outsider status. “The answer to every terrible situation,” he tells Rose, “always seems to be like, Be Yourself, but I have no idea what that fucking means. Who’s Myself? Apparently there’s some like amazing awesome person deep down inside of me or something? I have no idea who that guy is.”
Each of the members of our central trio of loners expresses similar sentiments at one point or another. On the off-Broadway scene, Annie Baker has come to be, essentially, the Patron Saint of Loners, but it’s a territory that she stakes out well, with dramatic precision and linguistic accuracy. It would be imprecise to assert that her dialogue mimics reality. Though it’s punctuated by the “ums” and “ahs” of modern vernacular, Baker’s dialogue is as finely crafted and as acutely fine-tuned as more syntactically conventional playwrights working today. To call it realistic is, in some ways, to demean its achievement.
Director Sam Gold’s approach is to allow Baker’s characters to be observed in their natural habitat. They may sweep or sit still for moments at a time without speaking, but there’s a reason for each silence and pause. Gold, who’s directed the majority of Baker’s New York City productions, has clearly considered his approach to Baker’s work and let’s the play speak for itself instead of standing in its way.
I suppose one’s view of The Flick will ultimately depend on one’s approach to theatre overall. It’s a languorous, occasionally frustrating production (seemingly intentionally so) that asks an audience not just to revel in its funnier moments but also to stew in its quietude, to allow the themes of the play to germinate over time. There’s not much plot to be spoken of — mostly shifting dynamics between employees — and each of the central characters is, essentially, likably unlikable. All the same, there’s something entrancing at work here, an audience staring down its empty-movie-theatre mirror image. For the entirety of the play, Baker’s characters are themselves an audience — preparing for or cleaning up after their own audiences, waiting for something (what?) to begin, or sitting in thrall of a fiction in which they can’t quite see their own selves mirrored.
In the play’s final third, the Flick, the last theatre in the area to still show movies on 35mm film, confronts the threat of the digital era as a new owner buys the building. Avery, who’s privately threatened to quit if the changeover happens, writes a thoughtful letter to the theatre’s new owner. “Film can express things that computers never will,” he begins. “Film is a series of photographs separated by split seconds of darkness. Film is light and shadow and it is the light and shadow that were there on the day you shot the film.”
Though he’s expounding on film, Aaron’s sentiments could just as easily be applied to theatre. There’s something at work in this play, which, considering its length and theatricality, could never make the jump to the big screen, which challenges an audience to discover characters from dialogue, yes, but also from silence. What’s at play when a character remains still and silent? Baker challenges us to consider these moments as deeply as her plays’ tangible exchanges — to ask ourselves to consider more deeply than in the average play what a character thinks and feels, not just what he or she says. In the hands of a lesser cast or inexperienced director, it’s easy to imagine the play losing some of its spark, but as it’s being presented at Playwrights Horizons, The Flick, one of the season’s best new plays, demands to be experienced.