It’s common to hear the complaint about workplace comedies during which there’s never any actual work being done.
But think about that for a sec — do people really want to be reminded of the mundane tasks they spend much of their week doing to keep the bills paid? Probably not.
That was the main reason Annie Baker’s play The Flick received so many complaints from subscribers in its New York debut at Playwrights Horizons in 2013.
It shows three employees of a small movie house going about unglamorous work — sweeping popcorn, mopping floors, running projection — for more than three hours.
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But what’s amazing about The Flick, which won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for drama and is having its area premiere in an insightful, first-rate production at Undermain Theatre, is that in that time the audience is spellbound by the little internal earthquakes that peek out from the captivating dialogue.
These characters might not have the eon-spanning emotional gravity of great American drama characters like Willy Loman or Amanda Wingfield, but there’s something quietly visceral in the minutiae of their everyday drama.
Sam (Alex Organ), in his 30s, has worked at this one-screen Massachusetts movie house for years, but is still stuck doing concessions, tickets and cleanup even as the younger and newer-to-the-job Rose (Mikaela Krantz) has graduated to projectionist.
Even more worrisome for Sam, it’s apparent that new employee Avery (Jared Wilson) could be on the same track as Rose.
Over 16 scenes (two acts, one intermission) we learn snippets about each one’s life. There’s more character-defining biography from Avery and Sam, but we get volumes about those two and Rose in each of their reactions — sometimes wordless and often subtle — to the others.
There’s also thought-provoking commentary about change and loss, as the small theater is on the verge of converting from 35mm to digital.
It’s like watching an engrossing, brilliantly edited, small-budget, character-driven movie with the kind of 3-D that only live theater can provide.
Director Blake Hackler hasn’t trimmed dialogue from Baker’s script, but the reason that it clocks in a little shorter than its New York debut (about 2:45) is that he streamlines some of the nothingness in the stage directions.
Baker doesn’t put time constraints on these moments, after all. He still takes time and care with the actors and the action and inaction.
All three actors give observant performances, with Wilson mastering a balancing act of bottled anger, faint confidence and a palpable passion for movies.
Organ conjures a whirlwind of intensity, heartbreak and low self-esteem; the final scene between him and Avery is a gut-punch that knocks the wind out of you for an uncomfortably long time.
Krantz is funny and intimidating and makes for a great foil for both. (There’s a fourth actor, but we won’t ruin that surprise.)
Scenic designer Robert Winn nicely mirrors the theater audience with movie theater seats and a projection booth, although this production is one of the more egregious examples of Undermain’s obtrusive columns mucking things up; I couldn’t see one small stage-right section.
That doesn’t take away from the overall experience — which is definitely an experience, perhaps best captured in Avery’s passionate defense of film. “Film can express things that computers never will,” he says. “Film is a series of photographs separated by split seconds of darkness.”
It’s not the most theatrical play, and maybe that’s why it’s tough for some viewers. But if you really listen — and watch for those split seconds of darkness — you’ll care about these characters and want to know even more about them.
But you’ll want to make The Flick II in your own head.