BWW Reviews: Annie Baker's THE FLICK Unapologetically Returns
Before Annie Baker's The Flick was awarded the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, its initial fame was combined with a bit of infamy, as Internet chat boards started spreading word of audience members regularly walking out on its Playwrights Horizons premiere production and multiple complaints caused the company's artistic director, Tim Sanford, to send an email to subscribers - denying claims it was an apology - defending their choice to produce it.
It wasn't necessarily the content or the quality of the play that was at issue, but more so the pacing. On paper, the The Flick is 122 pages long. Typically, that would mean a running time somewhere between two hours and fifteen minutes and two and a half hours at the most. But director Sam Gold's original production ran a bit over three hours and fifteen minutes.
That running time, unchanged for the original's remounting at the Barrow Street Theatre, is by design. In promoting her work, the playwright has expressed a preference for dialogue and pacing that more accurately reflects real life over the elevated reality generally associated with live theatre. As in her past plays, all of which have had their premiere productions mounted by Gold, The Flick includes conversations that skirt around points instead of making them. There are also many scripted pauses and silent moments where the audience can't clearly see what is going on
This isn't necessarily a bad thing. There's a lot to be said for finely presented subtext, but Baker's tale of the purity of an art form giving way to modern, money-making technology as seen through the eyes of three awkward employees of a single-screen Massachusetts movie theatre doesn't carry the necessary weight to justify the lengthy attention span requested.
Designer David Zinn's realistic auditorium, complete with rows of red chairs and holes in the upstage wall where the projector is set, appears even more authentic in the play's new, more intimate home. The theatre audience sits where the screen would be.
As described in Baker's script, the play opens in darkness, the only light coming from the projector hitting above the theatre audience's heads. We hear Bernard Herrmann's introductory film scoring for The Naked And The Dead, though all we see of the film is the bright white light flashing for, as specified by the playwright, two minutes.
Finally, actors appear. The tragic center of the piece is 35-year-old Sam (terrifically empathetic Matthew Maher), a thickly-accented, not especially bright, regular guy who is the senior member of the three-person crew. The first scene has him training Avery (Aaron Clifton Moten), a college student taking a semester off, in the ritual of sweeping the floors in between screenings; a simple task that the new guy gets down far quicker than his supervisor. While Avery, an introvert except when it comes to expressing his passion for movies, may have a better future ahead of him, Sam is pretty much stuck where he is. Though he has a crush on the punkish Rose (Louisa Krause), he also resents the fact that she was promoted to projectionist despite his seniority.
After letting these characters simmer for a while, revealing bits of their backgrounds and developing an attraction between Avery and Rose, Baker introduces the news that the art house is being sold to a chain that plans to replace the projector and go digital. While Sam and Rose are concerned for their jobs, Avery is infuriated with the switch to modern, less-artistic technology.
Although there is enough in The Flick to keep an audience satisfied for a more standard two-hour length, Baker and Gold's commitment to their interpretation of realism - including repetitious scenes and long silences that do not speak volumes - alienates attention from the sweet, humorous story of the day-to-day lives of three troubled people. This love letter to the movies could afford to incorporate a bit of theatre's elevated reality.