We gave it an A
The biggest laugh in Annie Baker’s moving, magnificent workplace comedy The Flick comes about halfway through, when 20-year-old movie theater usher Avery (Aaron Clifton Moten) refers to the potential sale of the independent single-screen theater to a corporate entity as “one of the saddest things of all time.” Sam (Matthew Maher), his 35-year-old coworker, replies, “I think the Holocaust would be one of the saddest.”
It’s a moment of much appreciated levity in the brazenly three-hour long play, running through August 30 at the Barrow Street Theatre, following a controversial 2013 engagement at Playwrights Horizons. (That production was noted for its high rate of walkouts from the largely subscriber-based audience, followed by a bizarre pseudo-apology letter from management; a gutsy decision by the 2014 Pulitzer committee to award the play its prize for drama eventually ensued.)
The Holocaust line is a chance to recalibrate, as well, for the playwright. Baker, along with the deft touch of frequent collaborator Sam Gold, avoids conveying the stridency and cluelessness inherent in the suggestion that the acquisition of a tiny movie theater equates to genocide—yet in her own subversive, extraordinary way, she also believes it to be true. The Flick, which takes place entirely within the crummy insides of that revival house, with its non-digital 35mm projection and falling ceiling tiles, is an aching lament for the present, for the world as we all know it could be, if only people would listen to us. Nostalgia is as coated on the play—and as brown and sticky—as the spilled Coca-Cola on the cinema floor.
The plot focuses on Avery, Sam and projectionist Rose (Louisa Krause). Each one is purposefully a type—the Urkel-like dweeb, the schlub still living with his parents, the needy punk-rock chick—and a type moreover that most of us wouldn’t automatically warm to. But in its lengthy, loopy, seemingly adrift scenes, the play explores their relatable angst. Sam is humiliated by his inability to rise in the ranks at a job he hates. Rose craves attention, until she actually gets some.
And Avery is simply too different to fit in anywhere. But the hairbreadth-subtle ways Baker underscores his alienation is remarkable. The play features the strategic use of the theme music from a recent comic book franchise, used to exemplify the fact that geekiness is now completely baked into the cultural cake—but Avery, who’s plays the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game with a savant-like fervor, isn’t a part of the new nerd revolution. Baker doesn’t make the mistake of lionizing him. His inability to relate to popular culture, she indicates, is a symptom of youth, inexperience, and perhaps, arrogance. In one of the play’s cleverest lines, Rose says to Avery and Sam, “Oh, boy, you both hate Tree of Life.” They say nothing in response.
The Flick is flawed, but in the way that all epic, idea-filled, great plays are. It’s overlong. So’s King Lear. It’s repetitive. So is Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Its final salvo could be read as audience-pleasingly optimistic, though it could also be interpreted in a half dozen other ways. More than anything, The Flick is a masterpiece of tone. Baker knows that the greatest American dramas about how we live now rarely arrive at the party all dressed up as important works of art. They look like traveling salesmen or old drunks. Or like the people we’d see sweeping up popcorn from a movie theater’s floor. We’d all be wiser for giving them a minute—or even 180 minutes—of our time. A