With Dominic Cooke’s solid revival of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom in the Lyttelton, and Yaël Farber’s sensational staging of Lorraine Hansberry’s Les Blancs in the Olivier, the National Theatre can certainly claim to be doing pretty well by American-authored plays at the moment. Those two productions are now joined by a third: Sam Gold’s staging of Annie Baker’s The Flick, which has just opened in the National Theatre’s smallest auditorium, the Dorfman.
Debuted Off-Broadway back in 2013, Baker’s play, which focuses on the interactions of three employees in the small, struggling Massachusetts movie-house of the title, arrives in London carrying a considerable weight of expectation, having scooped both the 2014 Pulitzer and the 2013 Obie awards. Despite such success, The Flick wasn’t universally adored in the States, however, with reports of walkouts by audience members who were challenged by the play’s three-hour plus running time, its slow pace, and its lack of obvious dramatics.
Judging by early responses, The Flick looks set to prove equally divisive here. With great perspicacity, a few critics have already noted that the play is “very long and very slow”, and accused it of “self-indulgence”. But while the production will likely frustrate people who have urgent business with their smartphones, those who do attune to its languorous rhythms will find that The Flick yields considerable rewards. While I didn’t love Gold’s production unreservedly, I found it to be a very refreshing and consistently absorbing experience overall.
It’s not that there’s anything overtly radical about Baker and Gold’s approach here. Rather, The Flick’s novelty lies in the way that it takes its time, allowing us to get to know the protagonists as they get to know each other, and not doing so in the pushy, flagging-it-up way that can be typical of stage drama. Indeed, with its young “loser” characters, and the preponderance of awkward “likes”, “ums” and pauses in the dialogue, the play is about as close as contemporary theatre has come to embracing the lo-fi aesthetic of mumblecore.
Baker’s protagonists are a rumpled, unprepossessing trio, already aware that their lives aren’t going in the direction they’d hoped. There’s new employee Avery, a film nerd who’s working at the cinema during a break from his studies, and who’s being guided through his first days by co-worker Sam, a 35-year-old who’s bitter about being passed over for promotion, and who’s fixated on Rose, the deadpan projectionist.
As these three mop floors, chat about movies, or make ill-advised passes at one another, a portrait of their individual lives gradually comes into focus. And so too does Baker’s concern with changing patterns in film consumption: ‘The Flick’ is one of the few cinemas to still project movies in 35mm, but the inevitable conversion to digital is coming, a prospect that Avery, ever the movie snob, thoroughly disdains.
In terms of its cultural references, tone and mood, The Flick is the most American of plays; so much so, that when Avery starts naming the likes of Pierrot le Fou and Andrei Rublev among his favourite films, it almost comes as a shock. Touching glancingly on issues of race, education, and economics, and offering, at the last, a fairly bitter perspective on the brutal way that co-workers can end up pitted against one another, The Flick is at its best when least obviously straining for effect, and when focusing on the protagonists’ chat during their work routines. Though undeniably funny, the more crowd-pleasing set pieces—such as Rose’s excruciating hip-hop bop—are somewhat less convincing.
Gold pitches the quieter moments perfectly, though, and Baker’s refusal to sentimentalise any of her characters is admirable. All three remain engaging, despite the fact that the acting isn’t (quite) everything you might hope for here. Louisa Krause, as Rose, and Matthew Maher, as Sam, were in Gold’s original production of the play, and while both actors have effective moments, their performances may have become a little too set over time, resulting in some affected, self-conscious delivery. Tellingly, the freshest performance comes from British newbie Jaygann Ayeh, who brilliantly makes Avery a compelling mixture of awkwardness and pretension, nailing a challenging phone monologue with heartbreaking precision.
The production’s naturalism is splendidly served by David Zinn’s set of cinema seats, with projection booth window above. Presenting the action from the perspective of the screen, the production effectively establishes a single static “shot”, with the only variety coming from the activity of the actors in the “frame”. In between scenes, the projector turns its light on us (a little menacingly) and dramatic film music swells and soars: ironic counterpoint to the mundane happenings that make up life for these characters.
Among those happenings, a favourite pastime of Avery and Sam’s is playing the parlor game, “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”, with Sam challenging Avery to link the most unlikely of actors (“Pauly Shore to Ian Holm!”). It’s a thematically apt choice of game, of course, for The Flick is all about exploring human connection. When Sam tells Avery that he looked him up on Facebook, and Avery tells Sam that he would have “friended” him already if he had an account, a moment of potential seems to open up between the characters, and leads Avery to a surprising confession.
This strange space between reticence and revelation is the one in which Baker’s drama achieves its quietly subversive power. While the approach can at times feel overly calculated, at its best The Flick wrests humour and pathos from the ways we know others, and from its mature appreciation of just how failed, fleeting and yet indelible such interactions may be.
The Flick is booking at the National Theatre until 15 June.
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