Posted by: strugglesome | March 15, 2013

Do The Right Thing: Playwrights Horizon’s The Flick

Though it might have begun as a visual medium, the art of moving film quickly became the art of the escape. A 35 millimeter flip strip, projected onto a screen larger than many New York apartments, can and does completely overwhelm its viewer. Like stepping up close to a Rothko painting, the act of watching a movie inundates its audience with sensation and sound and light and shadow and experience to the point that there is no world beyond the world of the cinema. This is film’s virtue and it’s curse, it’s danger and it’s delight. Movies erase our sense of external reality while still pretending to be reality. Here in the United States, a movie-rich country with the largest film industry in the world, we believe in movies more than we believe in almost anything.We expect a reality from film that is impossible, and we expect a cinematic quality to reality that is insane. Hooray for Hollywood, indeed.

And yet, for many of us, it’s hard not to fall more in love with movies then with life. After all, movies are scripted, life is not. Movies have plots and protagonists and craft and arc and endings. Life just goes on and on. Movies have swelling soundtracks. Life just has noise. But life is what we’ve got, and movies are what we’ve made. There is a difference there, for those who choose to see it.

And the three people who live and breathe in Annie Baker’s The Flick, directed by Sam Gold, now playing at Playwrights Horizons, live and die by movies, but not all in the same fashion. (There is also a fourth actor, the lovely Alex Hanna, playing two roles, but let’s discuss the principles before the subplots, shall we?) After all, there are people who fall more in love with movies then with real life, and there are people who fall out of love with movies because they understand that real life, in all it’s complicated messy realness, can be so much better than the best movie. And in The Flick we have the person who loves movies more than life itself, Avery (Aaron Clifton Moten), and the people who, while they may not love life, at the very least, they know it when they see it, Sam (Matthew Maher) and Rose (Louisa Krause).

All three characters are employees at a run-down movie theater in Worcester County, Massachusetts. It’s a rather small shabby affair, with faded stained maroon seats and mustard walls (fantastic set design by David Zinn, who also did the costumes), but it boasts one of the only 35 millimeter film projectors in the county, and that alone makes it a diamond in the rough. In a world  colored by fluorescent (solid lighting by Jane Cox) in love with the pointillism of digital pixels, The Flick, the theater itself, still airs films, in all their full orchestral glory (lovely sound by Bray Poor). And that’s what attracts the awkward and unhappy Avery (who Moten plays with impeccable timing and excellent subtlety and depth) to his job as a movie theater attendant. Well, that, and the fact that he has nothing else to do, he’s taking a semester off from college, he’s uncomfortable within the context of his own life, what better place to escape to then a movie theater, the site of all he holds dear? For Avery loves movies, moreover, he believes in movies. They mean more to him then life itself, which isn’t surprising, given how unhappy he is in his own life. But even though Avery would rather watch a filmstrip then deal with his life, life has a way of going on even while the movie is running, and so Avery must interact with other humans, his fellow employees, Sam and Rose.

Sam (a stellar and sweetly sad Maher who breaks your heart and forces you to smile), is a guy in his mid-thirties working at a crappy movie theater. So that’s probably all anyone needs to know about him. But in case you were wondering, to complete the picture, he lives with his parents and he is desperately in love with his fellow worker, Rose. Rose (a fantastic Krause, whose sense of delivery and pace couldn’t be better, and whose defiant charm is bizarrely attractive) is a quirky, darkly sardonic woman who is as unconscious of the people around her as she is sensitive to them. Sam’s adoration for Rose makes him pathetic, but infinitely relatable. And Avery, with his shy stuttering presence, is the unaware catalyst that will force Sam to finally confess his love to Rose. And does she rush into his arms and kiss him with the pent-up emotions of a thousand lonely nights? Of course not. This isn’t a movie.

Watching these three strangers stumble towards each other, collide with each other, offend each other, betray each other, survive contact with each other, is like seeing an underwater ballet. It moves slowly, but beautifully, and as each moment settles on the audience the accumulation of images and moments add up to something far greater than the sum of its parts. The settling of each moment as it comes, the sheer awkward realness of every beat, which Baker’s prose electrifies and Gold’s direction stretches to its terrifically torturous limit, gives the audience the literal or at least semi-literal life and death of these relationships. There are those who would and will say that this play is overly long, but it is my personal opinion that the length of the play is as deliberate as everything else about this fantastic production. The beginning is slow and uncomfortable because it mimics the way Avery and Sam and Rose get to know each other, it traces Avery’s journey for the audience from desperate new guy to desperate film nerd to desperate closet case to desperate idealist to desperate angry young man. It moves ponderously but deliberately and in its pace it delivers to its audience a real understanding of these people and their progression, or regression, or maybe evolution. Nothing in Baker’s text is random, or extraneous, but neither is everything explained. Instead, it holds all the mysteries of reality, and all the craft of impeccable playwriting.

These relationships, with their petty battles and deeply felt heartbreak, resonate with their audience on an inherent level because they could not be more real. For example, a moment in the burgeoning friendship between Avery and Sam in which Avery has betrayed Sam is punctuated with Sam, who shares his cleaning duties with Avery between each movie showing, suddenly scattering popcorn all over Avery’s section with a deeply satisfying and fantastic pop of a bag. It could not be a better expression of the pain and frustration that Sam feels at this moment, perfectly calibrated to live within the world of the play as a gesture that only makes sense within its own context.

Our obsession with film leads us to believe that life works a certain way, and yet our reality continually reminds us otherwise. That tension weaves its way into this play, dipping into the lives of these phenomenally unhappy people and framing their denial in celluloid and sadness. Avery specifically is a fascinating mess of a person, so eager to define his life by the movies he likes, rather than the events that are actually shaping it. As Avery says, when Rose tries to touch him sexually, ” I always just think, I’d rather be watching a movie”. The fact that Avery doesn’t see how pathetic and sad this is, only highlights to the audience the impact of this statement. There is a way in which to be in love with movies is to be ignorant of the world, and this is unique in the way that no other medium denies reality so deeply. But if you had a life like Avery’s, so filled with unavoidable unacceptable realities, you too might wish to disappear into a Quintin Tarantino film.

However, this is not how the world works, is it. And those who chose real life over movies know this, we know that “sometimes the people you fall in love with fall in love with you back.Sometimes they don’t. But sometimes they do. And it’s awesome”. And all the movies in the world wont stop your parents from letting you down, or you friends from betraying you, or the world from hurting you. And rewarding you, and giving you wonderful things, real things, things that have nothing to do with a projector, digital or otherwise. The fact that Baker can say all of this without saying any of it, that her play can settle slowly upon its audience with gorgeous depth and deftness, that every moment of it can feel essential and important and also, somehow, truly real, makes this piece so magnificent, and so very real. And while some would argue otherwise, what is theater for, if not the most real of real things? If you want fake, go to a movie.

The Flick is playing now through April 7th. Tickets are available here.

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