Those who have seen the previous gently-paced, meticulous, near miraculous collaborations between playwright Annie Baker and director Sam Gold — “Circle Mirror Transformation,” “The Aliens,” their adaptation of “Uncle Vanya” – may be similarly entranced by “The Flick,” which has now opened at Playwrights Horizons, focusing on three employees of a run-down movie theater in Worcester County, Massachusetts. The cast is exceptional, and the play is just as quietly breathtaking as their previous efforts.
But it also runs longer than their other plays, much longer — since the characters talk about films all the time, I’ll say Heaven’s Gate longer, reaching towards Andy Warhol’s Empire State Building film longer. Ok, not really; it only starts to feel that way.
Baker’s previous plays have all been no more than two hours. “The Flick” is three hours and 15 minutes – 195 minutes (including intermission.) On hearing the length, devotees of their work may think it inconsequential, and the truth is “The Flick” is wonderful in all ways but this one. Even those theatergoers who wind up agreeing that the play should be shortened may not mind much, but to me, the excessive length indicates something of a breakdown – in Baker and Gold’s exquisite sense of timing, even in the bond between these great theater artists and the audience.
One can understand their dilemma. They want to capture the rhythms of daily life, the real way that people speak, which includes incomplete sentences, silences; this takes time. At the same time, Baker is also bursting with things she wants to tell us about the three central characters – about their life stories, about their interaction, about their relationship over time – and also about the evolution of the American movie theater. The result of these two impulses is a play that takes on too much.
Still, there are deep pleasures in “The Flick” from the very start. David Zinn’s set is an impressive and for some reason amusing re-creation of a movie theater, row after row of seats on stage, a projector booth in the back. The real audience is where the screen would be.We are clued into the slow pace right away. For a full two minutes, we listen to the opening music for “The Naked and the Dead” and see the projector light shining in our faces (Remember, we’re the screen.) Then the lights go on in the movie theater and Sam (Matthew Maher) shows new employee Avery (Aaron Clifton Moten) the proper way to sweep the rows of the theater. We watch while they sweep, with broom and dustpan, row by row, mostly in silence. Avery is 20, the son of a college professor, and himself a college student, who is bright, close to brilliant in an idiot savant way; he is awkward around people; reluctant even to look them in the eye. Sam is nearing 40, never went to college, has been at this job too long, and seen others promoted over him. Avery is black, Sam is white.
Enter Rose (Louise Krause), who dyes her hair green and has worked her way up to projectionist.
Slowly, with painstaking care, we eventually see the three develop over one summer into what could be called a love triangle, although that implies the kind of swirling, romantic action that happens in the movies, not the awkward, unrequited, half-articulated desires and fears that happen among them in this movie theater while they are sweeping up in-between (unseen) movies – interaction that feels so real that it’s nearly painful.
Interspersed with this development is much talk about movies. The characters argue over movies, and play games about movies, in ways that are hilarious, touching, and even informative. “The Flick” is a play about movie-lovers that theater-lovers can love, if they’re patient enough. (It would have been better an hour shorter, though.)
At Playwrights Horizons
By Annie Baker
Directed by Sam Gold; sets and costumes by David Zinn; lighting by Jane Cox; sound by Bray Poor; production stage manager, Katrina Herrmann
Cast: Alex Hanna (Skylar/the Dreaming Man), Louisa Krause (Rose), Matthew Maher (Sam) and Aaron Clifton Moten (Avery).
Running time: three hours and 15 minutes including one intermission.
The Flick is scheduled to run through March 31.