Picture yourself stuck in a run down 100 seat movie theatre in Worcester County, Massachusetts in the summer of 2012. You are hidden from view, and you cannot speak, so for 3 hours you must listen to the talk between two cleaning men whose job it is to sweep the floors and toss out popcorn boxes and soda bottles after each show.
In what seemed like 22 short vignettes, the talk goes on for most of the summer, and from time to time it includes the female projectionist who drops in when the film is running and she isn’t needed in the projection booth. We, the audience, are part of the set. We represent the screen,while onstage there are indeed 8 or 9 rows of faded red velvet seats facing us. Above them is the booth; it is fronted by a glass window for the projector, and another for the operator, so we can see activity there whenever it’s occupied.
The Flick begins with the movie theatre in the dark. The only light comes from the booth, where a movie score, over flickering light, is being played at full blast, and in no time at all, we realize the music is wrapping up the movie. It plays for what seems like half an hour but in reality is about five minutes, building to the giant climax that lets us know the movie being screened is, at last, over. Then the lights come up, and Sam enters with Avery, a new employee who is about to be shown how to sweep and clean, under Sam’s instructions.
Now, if watching this sort of riveting activity is your cup of tea, you might find something of value up there on the stage of Playwrights Horizons, which is presenting this new play by Annie Baker under the direction of Sam Gold.
These two had some success last season with Ms. Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation, also at Playwrights in a production which I did not see. But this time out, all I could think, during most of the 180 minutes in my small seat, was that I was watching the Emperor without clothes.
For The Flick breaks every rule, defies any description of what I was taught makes a good play. It has no dramatic action whatever, its dialogue sounds as though we, the trapped audience, had a microphone hidden somewhere. That the two principal characters, later joined by a third, were inarticulate, emotionally challenged human beings did not help matters.
Under Sam Gold’s direction, and I assume Ms. Baker’s instructions, one could almost hear the actors being told to “say Mississippi to yourself four times before you respond when asked a complicated question like: ‘Are your parents living?’ or ‘Where were you born?’” The tipoff came at the top, when that movie score went on and on and on, climaxing several times before its finale ultimo brought its blast of clashing cymbals to a sudden halt.
There is no plot. Well, there is a tiny one and I certainly won’t spoil what there is of it for you by giving it away. All I can say is it’s not worth waiting until deep in the second act to even discover what it is.
Yes, we do see relationships of a sort crawling along as these three misfits get to know each other a tiny bit better, but because two of them are so unappealing and uninteresting, we really don’t give a fig. Louisa Krause, who plays Rose the Projectionist, has hair that looks as though it had been conditioned with various colors of paint. It verged on blonde, but there were touches of blue, green, brown and several pollutants sprinkled throughout. She played truthfully (sullen, confrontational, frustrated) but so quietly that most of her dialogue never made it beyond the apron of the stage. She seemed to have stayed home the day the cast worked on voice projection.
Matthew Maher, as Sam the senior member of the cleanup squad, was audible but I don’t know the name of the condition that requires interminable pauses accompanied by facial contortions before responding to any of the simple questions mentioned above. And Aaron Clifton Moten, whose Avery is the apprentice cleaning man, is easy to understand, is by far the most appealing of the three, but even he is prone to cogitate and ruminate and just plain wait before sharing any of his words of wisdom with us.
The experience from our points of view is somewhat like watching grass grow, and there’s not much enjoyment in that, unless you wish to join a few hundred other folks in the audience doing the same thing. There were some “woo woos” at the curtain call, I think more out of sympathy for the talented cast who had to spend over 6 hours on matinee days delivering Ms. Baker’s words than for the words themselves, but though I usually don’t comment on the audience reaction to a play, this one was so overwhelming that I think it best to literally quote one lady who could keep silent no longer. In the crowded elevator that restored us to the main floor after the play was over, she said simply, “Well that was a waste of time.” and all of us sort of groaned agreement.
I’m certain it will be argued in some quarters that this is a new form of theatre, that it is related to Martha Graham’s and Isadora Duncan’s innovations in dance, and Stanislavski and Lee Strasberg’s new approach to acting in the search for truth onstage, and the Angry Young Men’s kitchen sink dramas.
But in breaking every rule as to what makes a good play; dramatic action, craft, structure, some kind of journey for the characters, some kind of catharsis, Ms. Baker and Mr. Gold this time out have succeeded only, as the lady said, in wasting our time. There is a resolution in one case, but it’s rescinded a moment later as though Ms. Baker didn’t trust it. I don’t even understand the title. Movies haven’t been called “flicks” in 90 years. I’m sure it’s symbolic, but frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.