The Barrow Street Theatre
27 Barrow Street
Annie Baker’s The Flick , which premiered to some controversy at Playwrights Horizons in 2013, subsequently won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2014, and now it has re-opened for a commercial run at the Barrow Street Theatre. This is the best new American play in at least twenty years, a cause for wonder and rejoicing that feels like an entirely new way of doing theater, and it makes all the other current theater seem false, showy, and trivial. In its own radically anti-lyric, anti-conventional way, The Flick resembles Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding, another major play about three disparate people thrown together and trying hard to reach each other across increasingly immense distances. That’s how good it is, how piercing it is, and how essential.
For a little over three hours, we watch three employees who work at a movie theater in Massachusetts in the summer of 2012. Avery (Aaron Clifton Moten) is a 20-year-old African-American, a smart, guarded depressive, and a passionate cinephile. He is trained by the 35-year-old Sam (Matthew Maher), who at first seems to be a typical kind of Massachusetts guy with a Beavis-and-Butthead inflection, and Rose (Louisa Krause), the deadpan projectionist who also seems at first to be a type, a no-hope cool girl, but these types break down immediately when they start to discuss movies with each other. Avery insists that there have been no great American films made since Pulp Fiction. Sam says Avatar was great, and when Avery expresses his disgust with that choice Sam lists some Coen Brothers movies. Rose mentions The Tree of Life and eventually brings up Mulholland Dr.
It is clear that Baker herself is a hardcore cinephile, and her play is partly an elegy to 35mm projection and the move to all-digital projection in movie theaters, but this is only the start of her achievement here. What she has done in The Flick is focus minutely on the passage of time so that the characters become multi-dimensional, forever expanding, mysteriously, painfully, cathartically, before our eyes. The three actors give performances that match the high level of the writing, which means that they don’t give conventional performances at all.
Do you know what it’s like to enter an empty theater at night and suddenly sense and feel all the things that have ever happened in it? That’s what The Flick is like, extra-sensory, galactic, patiently unearthing the layers under the layers of experience, interrogating appearances, viewing the inevitable worst in people and the possibility of the best with austere charity. This is a realistic play that still believes in the possibility of magic, as when the mild-mannered Avery is uplifted and cleansed by reciting Samuel L. Jackson’s Ezekiel speech from Pulp Fiction. Baker makes us realize that we love the movies because they offer the seeds of transformation, and that is also what her play is offering us, on a very profound level.