There is a powerful character that you won’t see in The Flick—the script. Set in Worcester, Massachusetts, Annie Baker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning, three-person play (with a few brief appearances from a fourth) follows a motley group of movie theater employees as they interact on the job. Her 124-page exercise in hyperrealism reads like a movie script, with extensive stage directions, pauses, sentence interruptions, and so on. Of course, as a reviewer, I had the privilege of asking for it to try to make sense of Baker’s subtle exercise in humanity, but the average audience member must simply settle in for the three-plus hours and trust that he or she will be carried on an emotional journey worth the investment. Most will feel the pay-off from Sam Gold’s delicate direction and supreme performances by the cast—all of who return to the production after its original run last year at Playwrights Horizons.
Avery (Aaron Clifton Moten), a 20-year-old African American, arrives at the run-down film house for his first day on the job. He’s trained by Sam (Matthew Maher), a beleaguered 35-year-old stuck in a dead-end job with minor ambitions to hopefully run the projector, currently overseen by Rose (Louisa Krause)—a sexually magnetic 20-something who dresses in black and dyes the tips of her hair green. Sam and Rose are Caucasian, and that racial divide will come into play as a well-placed plot point later in the action. But this isn’t an obvious morality play as much as three exceptionally well honed character studies.
Avery is an avid movie buff with a keen ability to connect any combination of actors via six degrees (or less) of separation. It sparks an interesting comparison to those familiar with John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation, the 1990 play that also examined race, class, and relationships. Sam repeatedly challenges Avery’s film knowledge as the two become friends over time… or are they just work buddies? It’s hard to tell and anyone who has had a survival job can attest to the fleeting relationships one forms simply to stay connected to the outside world while muddling through mundane tasks that pay the bills.
It is Rose’s wavering moral compass that stirs the pot, first to set a precedent for deception, then to point fingers at those who suffer the consequences. She is the subject of Sam’s unrequited affection, and the instigator of something a bit tawdrier with Avery. So the trio goes about their business for months on end, and though the script may skip calendar chunks, the onstage action unfolds in real time with such detailed specificity that I occasionally wanted to scream, “Can you just sweep that popcorn a bit faster?” The answer, of course, is yes, but the revelation is that these three are lost souls, caught in life’s repetitive rotation without much of a clue as to how to set a different course.
Spouting a speech impediment and referencing a worsening rash as the play wears on, Mr. Maher as Sam is an unconventional leading man. Yet the character’s lovability quotient holds steady despite unlovable actions (or inactions), and it is this unbecoming but recognizable mediocrity that makes him that much more believable. Mr. Moten captures Avery’s lost boy soul with haunting accuracy, and if you’ve ever been around someone overmedicated for depression you might see some frighteningly truthful resemblances. Ms. Krause delivers perhaps the most dynamic shifts as a young woman discovering the power and potential abuse of her own sexuality. At times androgynous and at others wildly feminine, she casts a palpable, flippant energy that can shift on a dime.
Director Sam Gold keeps things grounded with the help of an appropriately dingy set by David Zinn and sensorial elements by Jane Cox (lighting design) and Bray Poor (sound design.) But this is Annie Baker’s story to tell. And that she does, one deliberate word and stage direction at a time.
Barrow Street Theatre
27 Barrow Street
Through August 30