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The Flick

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Matthew Maher and Louise Krause.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Like heaven and hell, purgatory can look like many things. But who would have expected it to so closely resemble a movie theater? For Sam, the 35-year-old cinema employee at the center of Annie Baker's new play The Flick, at Playwrights Horizons, his place of work is not one of the infinite enjoyment and imagination his patrons may experience. Instead, it's where his aspirations—and his best years—have gone to die. What's all the more amazing is that everything about Baker's play that surrounds him is so remarkably, vibrantly alive.

This is a bigger achievement than it may at first sound. As the play is set entirely in the auditorium of a second-rate first-run theater (the painstaking design of David Zinn, who also did the costumes, appealingly lit by Jane Cox), and most of the scenes unfold exclusively between showings of the films the house projects, you might expect it to be, at most, sedate and unfocused. What emerges instead is one of the richest and most evocative and engrossing dissections of humanity to hit Off-Broadway in ages.

Baker's having found a decisive way to communicate Sam's hapless hopelessness at the same time as his cheery resignation with his lot will not surprise anyone who's followed her New York productions over the last several years. In her previous plays Body Awareness and The Aliens, she's managed to weave together such fractious incongruities with cleverness and emotional clarity; and in her expert Circle Mirror Transformation (also seen at Playwrights Horizons, in 2009), Baker demonstrated how succinctly she can insist she's saying one thing while actually saying something—or, more likely, a dozen somethings—quite different underneath.

It's that gift that proves most crucial to The Flick as well, as without it this would be a pointless and even impossible-to-follow play. Chances are it would also appear to be about nothing more than what appears to unfold on its surface: the intersecting lives of three workers at the theater, with Sam (Matthew Maher) forever pining over his life and the pretty projectionist Rose (Louise Krause) he's convinced is forever out of his reach, and film savant Avery (Aaron Clifton Moten) serving shifts with Sam and learning that the pittance he earns doesn't compare favorably with what the partnership is costing him.

Yet across the span of nearly three and a half hours of playing time, as Baker deploys scene after deceptively disconnected scene, most of which depict Sam and Avery cleaning the theater, half-stuttering conversations among the various permutations of characters, or bizarre disquisitions on who acted with whom in a movie or whether film is really better than digital, a far deeper and more complex story emerges. The characters are revealed as slaves to the art form that fills their days, with Sam in particular so lost in his personal crusade to "get ahead" that the resulting miscommunication and betrayals threaten to rob him of the very livelihood that is his last hope and the paper-thin dreams to which he still clings.

Moten is intense at depicting Avery's obsession, both in the games of Six Degrees of Separation he and Sam play ("Michael J. Fox and Britney Spears" is one particularly daunting combination) and in one ill-fated encounter he shares with Rose on the only night Sam is gone. Avery is entranced, almost to the point of hypnotism, by the movies he loves, and Moten makes it all completely natural. Krause treats Rose's dependent indifference just as effectively, integrating whispers of worry behind the rough exterior of a woman who might not be needed if, as is rumored, the theater is sold to someone more interested in current moviegoing trends.

Matthew Maher and Aaron Clifton Moten.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

But Maher is the most magnetic, with both the most and the least to play. He creates numerous layers of contradictions within Sam, explaining at every step how he plants the seeds of his own downfall, and drenches the man with the mute desperation of someone who's reached the worst of all possible dead ends. When Rose likens Sam's declarations of affection to his playing a scene, she's both right and wrong: He is acting, but he's so lost touch with his feelings that he's forgotten how to tell fantasy from fact. Maher makes you understand exactly how a potentially promising person could have become so confused.

Ultimately, the most credit is due to Baker, who's outlined such a richly conflicted person, and director Sam Gold (also of Circle Mirror Transformation). The latter is back in top form here, never letting a shred of excess or cartoonishness creep into the actors' portrayals. Avery, Rose, and especially Sam have constructed their entire existences so what they say, do, think, and feel makes makes no sense anywhere else, and Gold lets you see just how real, terrifying, and wide-ranging a situation that is—even if we never actually see a world outside a few banks of seats.

Such attention to detail makes The Flick more expansive than it seems should be possible, and it pays enormous dividends once we encounter the darker places all these roads are leading—though it also has the side-effect of greatly magnifying any imperfection. There aren't many, but you feel more oppressively than you should in such a finely wrought piece the extra minute or two in the first act, the mildly bloated silences in the second, or the marginal inelegance that makes the ending come across as more pat and less startling than is perhaps ideal.

These are, however, forgivable and easily addressable nitpicks in this quietly epic exploration of what our work and our self-imposed barriers make us. Avery, Rose, and especially Sam are, in their own ways, trapped within the confines of what The Flick allows them, and will never escape its shackles except by means of a miracle But by letting them live and speak in so open and so unadorned a way, with dialogue that thrills because of how thrilling it so often isn't, Baker has made her play as free and freeing as it is captivating.

The Flick
Through March 31
Playwrights Horizons Mainstage, 416 West 42nd Street between 9th & 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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