Last weekend, I finally saw Annie Baker’s The Flick, though I’ve been aware of the play – and the dust-up surrounding it – for more than two years. The original production at Playwrights Horizons was infamous for the hostile response of some audience members, who left the theatre early, and/or wrote angry letters of complaint to the management.
The negative response was taken seriously. Playwrights Horizons’ artistic director, Tim Sanford, wrote a placating email to his subscribers. In it, he stood by the play, but acknowledged it wasn’t for everybody.
Surely, Sanford intended to calm the waters, but his letter resulted in a secondary controversy, which briefly seemed to overwhelm the one surrounding the play itself. (My personal take – it was a reasonable instinct for Sanford to reach out to subscribers, but to do it while The Flick was still running was inexcusable.)
Ultimately, Baker and her play emerged victorious. The Flick was awarded a Pulitzer, and Obie, and the Susan Smith Blackburn prize. Better yet, the original production was remounted at the Barrow Street Theatre, where it continues, through early January 2016, at least.
Having now seen it, I can’t understand the hostility. It’s a gorgeous play. Yes, it’s long – but The Flick repays the patience of its audience a thousand times over in its insights, humor, and a richly detailed sense of life observed.
You may hear that there’s “nothing going on” in The Flick (a common complaint, apparently, from cranky PH subscribers), but don’t believe it. The play’s three characters – Avery, Sam, and Rose, two men and a woman, working menial jobs in a small-town movie theatre, on the verge of closing – are utterly engrossing.
On one level, The Flick is Baker’s elegy to film – more specifically, to neighborhood movie theatres on the brink of extinction brought on by many factors, including the coming of digital projection. Baker’s love of the art form is a palpable presence throughout, made more charming through her egalitarian tastes – sure, she pays tribute to masterpieces like Jules and Jim. But long-forgotten movies like Mannequin, Bio-Dome, and Stop Or My Mom Will Shoot also have their momentary resurrection here.
Avery, Sam, and Rose themselves are, in a sense, human analogues to these minor movies. They toil quietly, largely unnoticed and unrewarded. Yet, to spend considerable time with them, as we do, is to discover an infinitely nuanced world of complex human connections. Some of them are funny, some painful – and Baker’s compassionate but unflinching portraiture captures it all.
On its deepest level, I see The Flick as a meditation on the disconnection between our fantasies and the much less glamorous reality most of us live. If this play were a movie, the relationships would likely play out in heightened, “theatrical” ways – Avery and Sam fighting over Rose, for instance (in other words, a romantic triangle). Or Rose coming between the two male friends (a buddy movie).
But life is only life – and, for the trio in The Flick, it passes in the tiniest, most ordinary, even tedious ways.
I think The Flick is about all this and more. But don’t take my word for it – it’s a play that needs to be seen by any serious theatre goer.
And if you can, see it in director Sam Gold’s marvelous production. The standout performance is Matthew Maher, wonderfully quirky as Sam, the oldest and oddest of the group. But the other actors all do very well.
Gold is Baker’s director of choice, and it’s easy to see why. What he does may look easy, sometimes even invisible – his stage is a single set, and the blocking configurations are limited, often repeating patterns (sweeping up popcorn on the floor is a major trope). But the shape that Gold gives The Flick – and the courage to allow moments to unfold in real-time, even when that feels uncomfortably slow – is artful indeed. Something as small as that sweeping popcorn has a kind of grandeur here, made more so because we’re so invested.
I don’t think it would work as well if The Flick were 90 minutes or even two hours. It seems strange to say it, given the small lives of its central characters, but this play is epic.
And surely, had we not spent several hours under its hypnotic spell, we might completely miss Gold and Bakers’s most brilliant coup-de-theatre, a wordless moment played out in the lights, and one I expect to remember for years – watching the warm, flickering light of the film projector give way to an icy, penetrating, soulless beam that – for movie lovers, at least – signifies the End of Days.