I admit to hitherto being a somewhat skeptical celebrant at the church of Annie Baker, the thirtysomething American playwriting phenom who has taken the New York stage by storm with her extreme, almost hyper-naturalistic portraits of everyday folks going about their banally uninteresting lives, and struggling to make connections in language that is acutely and often painfully attuned to the prosaic speech patterns of our current digital age (lots of "likes" and "uhms" and many many pauses). The 2012 Arts Club production of Circle Mirror Transformation, the play that made Baker's name, struck me as disingenuously ingenuous in its unstudied approach to the baring of the inner lives of a group of amateur mechanicals in Vermont who find themselves part of a community centre theatrical workshop--and in my recollection that was only partly the fault of Nicola Cavendish's weak direction. However, the Arts Club's current production of The Flick, the play that won Baker the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, has made me rethink my assessment. The play contains all of Baker's trademark anti-theatrical conceits--long pauses, quotidian dialogue, real-time action in which nothing really happens--but this time there is more depth to her characters, not to mention the development of real dramatic tension between them. In this regard, the playwright seems to have substituted what I previously took to be winking irony for sincere empathy. She also embeds within this play a cogent aesthetic and socio-economic critique.
The Flick is set in a single-screen movie theatre in a small town in Massachusetts, one of the last such venues in the state that still shows 35 millimetre films. The plot centres on three main characters, all employees at the cinema. Avery, played by a superb Jesse Reid, is an upper-middle class college-age black man who is just starting out. Avery is a cinematic savant, with a deep knowledge of and affinity for the movies, but only those made on and projected as celluloid. He is also socially awkward in a way that suggests he resides somewhere on the autism spectrum, his phobias about shit and his depression about the breakup of his parents' marriage belying much deeper anxieties about the state of the world. Sam, a veteran employee in his thirties, is in charge of training Avery, which mainly consists of handing him a broom and waste bin into which to sweep the popcorn and other detritus left behind by the theatre's patrons (only one of whom, played by Aaron Paul Stewart, we ever see). Sam has never been to college and still lives with his parents, and Haig Sutherland portrays the character's affronted weariness, not to mention genuine woundedness, at the lot life has handed him (including at one point a painful skin rash) with a quiet dignity that by the end of the play almost makes Sam appear heroic. The third main character in the play is Rose, the projectionist, a super-sexual free spirit for whom Sam pines, but who only seems to have eyes for Avery. Shannon Chan-Kent manages the difficult trick of making Rose seem at once an unattainable romantic goddess (that she spends much of her time moving about silently in the illuminated projection booth of Lauchlin Johnston's amazing set helps on this front) and a flesh and blood desiring woman intent on getting what she wants (cue a hilarious seen of Rose twerking in front of Avery).
The inevitable romantic triangle becomes the most immediate source of dramatic conflict in the play, which stretches three hours and involves multiple scenes of Avery and Sam silently sweeping up popcorn. But it is part of Baker's durational method to show us that in the midst of these apparently trivial scenes of repetitive and routinized labour, and the "ordinary affects" that accompany that labour (to quote from the anthropologist Kathleen Stewart), things erupt without warning to throw us--and our characters--off course. What's more, the play suggests that these personal eruptions are actually symptomatic of a larger neoliberal ideology that, to quote another fancy-shmancy affect theorist, Lauren Berlant, conspire to keep folks like Sam especially in a constant state of "cruel optimism," perpetually longing for the thing they want, but which they are perpetually denied, or told they cannot have. Thus, Rose's clumsy attempted seduction of Avery during a weekend that Sam is away at a family wedding sets off a chain of mutual recriminations that actually climaxes in a tense scene in which race and class are set against each other as part of a zero-sum equation of employee solidarity versus individual self-interest. That is, the new owner of the movie theatre, having first announced his decision to move exclusively to digital projection (something that causes Avery physical pain), subsequently accuses Avery of being solely responsible for skimming off a portion of box office proceeds under the previous management, a scheme into which he was very reluctantly conscripted by Rose and Sam when he first started his job (because, as Rose puts it, "No one can live on $8.50 an hour"). Avery thinks the new boss is targeting him because he is black and wants his coworkers to come clean on the fact that they were also part of the plan, in the hopes that they'll all be forgiven. However, Rose suggests that there is less at stake for Avery because he is the son of well-paid academic whose tuition is free and who is only working this job as a hobby, whereas for her and Sam this is their livelihood. For his part, Sam sheepishly notes that Avery said he'd quit anyway if the place stopped screening actual celluloid films.
All of this is accomplished without any flashy screaming and yelling, just a simmering stand-off that is telegraphed mostly through silently accusatory glances. And it is to director Dean Paul Gibson's immense credit that he is able to get his actors to say so much with just the subtlest movements of their bodies, a slump of the shoulders or a refusal to turn around or the hanging of a head communicating so economically--but no less affectingly--defeat or pride or hurt. As Avery notes to Sam in a brief coda at the end of the play, these characters have been thrown together by circumstance, and that circumstance--a minimum wage job in a soon-to-be obsolete service industry--conspires against the chance of them ever becoming real friends. Given that, the kindnesses we do witness between the characters--including the one Sam makes to Avery at the very end--register as all the more powerful.
This is a superb production of a very thoughtful play. It deserves to be seen.