Laura C. Harris has now starred in my two favorite Signature Theatre productions. Her star turn in the immersive physical (and criminally underseen) Tender Napalm put her on my fanboy map, and now her performance in Annie Baker’s subtle, lovely Pulitzer Prize winning The Flick puts her in those rare ranks where I’m pretty sure she’d find something interesting and playable in reading the phone book.
Come to think of it, a scene of Harris’s brassy slacker Rose flipping through the yellow pages wouldn’t be too far out of place in the low-key world Baker has crafted out a Massachusetts cinema on the verge of closing. Or condemnation. Or both.
In the past few years Baker has become a leading light in hyper-realistic theatre, priding herself on minutely detailed dialogue and playable silences, coupled with slice-of-life plots that may be low on incident but are often immensely high in emotional resonance. That’s certainly true of The Flick, in which Baker gets a lot of dramatic mileage off the workplace interactions of three underpaid underachievers who have found themselves tossed together at the titular movie house, charged with sweeping out the detritus left by the few uncaring patrons who still come, and manning one of the last precious few honest-to-god film projectors left in a world gone digital.
Director Joe Calarco does a great job mining the indignities of janitorial work for comedy, getting sharp physical performances from Signature stalwart Evan Casey as veteran Sam, and newcomer Thaddeus McCant’s as his shy, skittish trainee, Avery. Despite Baker’s high-minded literary reputation, the woman knows her way around a good poop joke. All part of why I love her work so. Nothing about this plot is particular revolutionary, it’s fairly standard by contemporary drama standards, with lots of third act secrets providing a mildly contrived climax. But nobody is diving into the lives and passions of the American under and middle-classes better right now than Baker, one of our new masters of the mundane.
The acting is uniformly good here, especially Harris who is capable of stunning turn-on-a-dime emotional shifts and bursts of physical energy. A joyous dance party is a highlight of the show. Evan Casey does a great job mining Sam’s put-upon frustration without making him seem a victim of fate. McCant is a strong physical actor, though at times his performance seems to be all spastic physical tic to the point of distraction, but the man drops a bomb of a monologue towards the end when he’s allowed to cut loose a bit.
March 1 – April 24, 2016
4200 Campbell Avenue
Arlington, VA 22206
3 hours, 20 minutes with 2 intermissions
Tickets: $22 – $105
There’s lots of strong, hyper-realistic design here too, starting with set designer James Kronzer’s lovingly dilapidated moviehouse, of which we see only the last few rows of seats and an intentionally muffled projection booth high above. That projection booth is an especially nice touch, making for some lovely moments of ironically cinematic forced perspective. The production’s secret weapon is Eric Shimelonis’s sound design, which pushes Signature’s speakers to the limit with nicely chosen clips from various classic movies.
Attention to detail isn’t everything though. It’s difficult to appreciate those details, and all the fine acting going on, when it’s difficult to see the action. The downstage section of the set is floor level, approximately even with the first row of audience seats. It’s also extremely close to the audience, which means that when action is downstage it becomes difficult for much of the audience to see. I spent a good quarter of The Flick’s considerable runtime craning my neck to see actors that weren’t more than five feet away from me. It’s an unfortunate unforced error that puts a dent in the experience of the show.
Clocking in at nearly three and a half hours (with a single intermission about two hours in) The Flick is something of an endurance test. Baker writes with a deliberate pace, full of moments of intentional quiet and minimal action. It’s a style that is known to lead to walkouts among the less patient set. I myself largely loved the show. Allow me to borrow a trick from Baker’s own playbook and end this review with a quote from that other great humanist, Roger Ebert, that I think is especially apropos here: “No good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough.”
The Flick by Annie Baker. Director: Joe Calarco . Scenic Design: James Kronzer . Sound Design: Eric Shimelonis . Lighting Design: Andrew Cissna . Costume Design: Frank Labovitz . Production stage manager: Julie Meyer . Produced by Signature Theatre . Reviewed by Ryan Taylor.