Regional Reviews: Boston
Annie Baker's 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Flick is like a still-life painting, reproducing a slice of life in a rundown movie theater in central Massachusetts. Two young men toil to maintain the tired interior, sweeping up the popcorn remnants and scattered litter, scraping unidentifiable goo from the floor, and occasionally ejecting a sleeping patron, while a desultory young woman toys with their emotions and handles the projection duties they covet by rote. Like the artist's representation of fruit in a bowl on a table, the playwright draws our attention to the shadows and spaces in the arrangement of her characters in relation to each other and the small world they inhabit, and the shading in the language and gestures they choose to connect or conceal as they try to figure out their futures.
Not much happens on the stage - and much of what does is extremely repetitious - but the thing to know about an Annie Baker play is that the real messages are transmitted in the silences and pauses when it looks like nothing is happening. It takes focus and discipline on the part of the actors to make it work and the Gloucester Stage production hit the trifecta with its trio of Nael Nacer (Sam), Marc Pierre (Avery) and Melissa Jesser (Rose), under the detailed direction of Bridget Kathleen O'Leary, all making their local debuts. Following Baker's explicit stage directions and adhering to the intricate patterns of her dialogue, O'Leary and company make The Flick's mundaneness compelling for the duration of its nearly three-hour length.
The crux of the story is the uncertainty that each character is dealing with as an individual, even as the global film industry is making a major transition from celluloid to digital format, threatening the livelihood of small, independent theaters such as theirs, one of the last in the state that still uses a 35-millimeter film projector. As they debate the authenticity of the images captured on film versus those shot digitally, Baker draws a parallel with human relationships by showing the three struggling to keep pace with changes in the world and within themselves. Their search for self is recognizable and relatable, but not stereotypical in the least.
Sam is 35-years old and stuck in a teenager's job because he's waiting for an opportunity that he thinks he's entitled to because of longevity. He bonds with the new kid, 20-year old film buff Avery, over a "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon"-like trivia game about celebrities in movies. Avery is socially awkward, allowing Sam to step up as his protector, as well as his mentor on the job. Rose is something of a curiosity to Avery, but, paired with his hope that he'll be promoted to projectionist, she appears to be one of the reasons why Sam hangs on. Unlike her co-workers who have a passion for films, Rose's interest is merely passing and her job at the Flick is a means of putting food on the table, not nourishment for her soul.
Nacer's performance is a master class in method acting. As called for by the script, he has shaved his head, altering his appearance in a way that metaphorically bares his thoughts. His emotions are broadcast by his myriad facial expressions and body language, always grounded in the moment that Sam is experiencing. The images Nacer projects are indelible, so much so that several days after seeing the play, I can still visualize how he appears in any number of scenes, how his character reacts to a panoply of situations, from the mundane to the momentous. Ultimately, no matter what indignities he suffers, or how he is disappointed by his co-workers or life in general, Nacer's Sam continues to wield his mop or dustpan and broom, control what is within his reach and let go of the rest of it with his head held high and a little smile at the corner of his mouth.
The challenges in playing the role of Avery include his physical stiffness and his insecurity, but Pierre uses a slew of mechanisms to create a consistent presence. He pushes his glasses up on his nose, stares off into the distance when he's uncomfortable and hunches his shoulders to shrink from an unpleasant situation, like a turtle pulling its head inside its shell. Of the three main characters, Avery is the one who changes the most over the course of the play, learning some important things about himself from his experiences with Sam and Rose, and Pierre conveys his emotional growth.
Rose is not a very nice person, but Jesser mines the sympathetic vein that suggests her egocentric behavior comes from a place of low self-esteem, insecurity and a need to try on different personalities until she finds one that fits. At first blush, she appears to be a bohemian, with green streaks in her hair and wearing baggy clothing, but her interactions with Sam and Avery reveal her baggage and Jesser dances from one aspect to another with a mastery of the choreography. The chemistry among the three is outstanding, perfected by the care with which they listen to each other, as if having the conversation for the first time.
James Wechsler plays a pair of slackers who appear briefly. In the first act, he is one of those sleeping patrons who Sam has to rouse when the movie has ended. Later, he is a disinterested new hire who Sam has to teach the finer points of sweeping up popcorn. O'Leary works him into the ensemble, but is sure to let it feel a little rough as it might be when training a new employee. Her command of Baker's signature pauses and silences is evident in the unhurried pacing of the production. The design team of Courtney Nelson (set), Lara Jardullo (costume), Russ Swift (lighting) and David Remedios (sound) collaborates to recreate an authentic movie theater, with rows of dingy seats looking back at us, and complete with a window into the projection room situated above the last row.
The Flick tests the stamina and patience of its audience, but Baker's style captures the way people actually talk and is a reflection of real life. There are moments of humor, as well as moments of darkness, but every moment feels honest, without pretense. That is as much a credit to the fine work done by Nacer, Pierre and Jesser as to the playwright. Know that once you settle into the rhythm of it, The Flick will reward your patience and bestow a small symbolic gift at its conclusion. Make sure you stay in your seat until the final fadeout.
The Flick, performances through September 12 at Gloucester Stage, 267 East Main Street, Gloucester, MA; Box Office 978-281-4433 or www.gloucesterstage.com.
Written by Annie Baker, Directed by Bridget Kathleen O'Leary; Set Design, Courtney Nelson; Costume Design, Lara Jardullo; Lighting Design, Russ Swift; Sound Design, David Remedies; Stage Manager, Marsha Smith; Assistant Stage Manager, Jenna Worden; Dramaturg, Amelia Dornbush
Cast (in alphabetical order): Melissa Jesser, Nael Nacer, Marc Pierre, James Wechsler
- Nancy Grossman