Review by: JK Clarke
A play about movies—or rather a passion for movies—should by no means have a longer running time than your average film (approximately 90-120 minutes). And it certainly shouldn’t exceed that time by an hour. What, then, was director Sam Gold thinking when he staged Annie Baker’s latest play, The Flick, as overlong, tedious and lull-heavy? There are times in theater when long silences or pauses are meaningful to a performance and add value. And then there is The Flick, when those things are wasteful and pointless. And it’s a shame, since it renders a potentially interesting play almost completely unbearable. The runtime is nearly as long as a standard production of Hamlet with about a 20th of the word count and an even smaller fraction of the action, and people often complain about Hamlet’s length. What it feels like here is that the very accomplished Gold (his production of The Village Bike last summer was terrific), is exploring mumblecore (a film style featuring low production value and naturalistic dialog, complete with pauses and “um’s” and “ah’s”) at our peril. Of the show’s rather lengthy roster of producers, couldn’t someone have staged intervention?
The Flick is the kind of play that people pat themselves on the back for liking, even if they really don’t. And for some reason the intelligentsia has glommed on to this one. A couple of big-name Hollywood celebrities sitting through a recent, non-opening night production, were seen glancing around the room, seemingly bored to tears, yet applauded enthusiastically at the curtain. That they were there to begin with, and that this play has received so much hype (and a head-scratching Pulitzer Prize), only goes to further demonstrate that industry “buzz” is not always meritorious.
Set in a run-down, suburban Massachusetts movie-house, one of the last in the region that actually shows movies on 35 mm film (as opposed to digital projection), The Flick centers around three characters, all employees: too-old-for-the-job Sam (Matthew Maher), who collects tickets, cleans the theater between shows and trains new employees; blasé and depressive projectionist Rose (Louisa Krause); and Avery (Aaron Clifton Moten), the new guy, an introverted, bespectacled and obsessive 20-year-old cinephile. Most of the action takes place after each screening (when we are jarringly blinded by the projection light as the film spools out), as Avery and Sam sweep up spilled popcorn and find odd items left behind.
Their ordinary workplace banter is friendly, but often adversarial, as they are from distinctly different social backgrounds: Sam is white, working class and minimally educated while Avery, whose father is a professor, is not only something of a savant (amusingly demonstrated by his remarkable skills at playing cinematic six degrees of separation, much to Sam’s delight), but also African American. That difference alone puts the two at almost immediate odds. What’s more, Avery’s taste in cinema is sophisticated and refined: he’s obsessed with Quentin Tarantino and his fight for the preservation of celluloid film (as is the playwright, seemingly, for she has repeated here some of his statements on the subject almost verbatim); what’s more, he frequently hums the score from Tuffaut’s Jules et Jim while sweeping the aisles. Sam, on the other hand considers Avatar one of the great films of all time. Without a doubt, the juxtaposition of their two separate intellects, class and taste (despite a mutual love for film), counterbalanced interestingly by the presence of Rose, whom Sam claims to love (though likely only as a consequence of proximity) and who has sexual designs on Avery, is an interesting conflict. What’s more, Barker’s dialog (supported with very good acting), despite occasional sitcom-esque jokes, is well-written and mostly believable. But there’s very little character development (they are all fairly one-dimensional, unlikeable and don’t evolve during the course of the play) and it’s often repetitive (certainly not deep enough to draw out over three hours).
It’s safe to say that The Flick is a missed opportunity. It has the potential to be a compelling—though not award winning—short play. One of the most frequently repeated grouses (amongst those who don’t love it) is that “the emperor has no clothes,” and that it’s something of an exercise in intellectual onanism. And considering the hype, that’s a fair assessment. There’s even a moment, walking out of the theater, when one wonders if a big joke had just been played. But, no, it’s more likely that the problem with the play is that too many people involved felt that they had to say “yes,” and no one had the guts to say “no.” If a production could ever have used an editor, it was this one.
The Flick. Through August 30 at The Barrow Street Theater (27 Barrow Street, at Seventh Avenue). www.barrowstreettheatre.com
Photo: Joan Marcus