Culture

Movie Time: Annie Baker’s Pulitzer-winning 'The Flick' Transfers to the National Theatre

Louisa Krause (Rose) and Jaygann Ayeh (Avery) in The Flick NT. Photo by Mark Douet.

Funny, sorrowful, quietly subversive, and a film nerd’s wet dream, Annie Baker’s Pulitzer-prize-winning play mines humour and pathos.


The Flick

Run: April-June 2016
Playwright: Annie Baker
Venue: National Theatre
City: London

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.

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image