Avery is something of a cinema savant. Not only is he thoroughly conversant with mainstream movies, always remembering when they were released and which stars shared the screen, but he’s absorbed Truffaut, Bergman and the like. At just 20 years old, he’s watched “the entire Criterion Collection” — nearly 900 mostly arcane art-house titles on DVD. And he’s memorized great chunks of Pulp Fiction, which he argues is the last truly great American film.
Sam, his co-worker, just calls him a snob. Sam’s tastes are — depending on how you see such things — a bit more populist or a bit less discerning. He clearly loves movies too, and relishes talking about them with Avery; he just doesn’t load them with the kind of existential weight and true-believer value judgments that Avery does.
And then there’s Rose. She has her favorites, but movies in general just don’t mean much to her anymore, not since she’s been in her current job. Rose and Avery and Sam work at The Flick, a run-down old single-screen movie house.
That’s the setting (and a fair bit of the set-up) for Annie Baker’s 2014 Pulitzer-winning play The Flick, now whirring to life onstage at Imago Theatre in a characteristically well-considered production from Third Rail Rep.
In ways beyond its halting, hyper-naturalistic dialogue and New England setting, The Flick recalls earlier Baker works. Like The Aliens, which Third Rail presented in 2013, it offers a comic-yet-touching character study of small-town dead-enders (or at least under-achievers) struggling to fit in somewhere, anywhere. Like Circle Mirror Transformation, which Artists Rep staged in 2012, it uses an underbelly view of the arts to examine the ways in which story, performance, and other related elements shape our seemingly mundane lives.
Circle Mirror uses the games and exercises of a community-center “adult creative drama” class to let loose the interpersonal dynamics of its characters, while The Flick centers on Sam and Avery talking about movies as they sweep up in between showing movies; however, The Flick is, on the surface, less about movies than Circle Mirror is about theater. That is, the plot points about whether the movie house’s inattentive owner will sell the place and/or switch from 35-millimeter reels to digital projection (cinematic apostasy, in Avery’s eyes) aren’t all that important. It’s more a love story, and even at that it’s less about Avery’s ardent affair with the silver screen than about Sam’s desperate pining for the thoughtlessly thorny Rose.
And yet, in subtle ways Baker weaves an almost philosophical meditation on the nature, meanings and inherent metaphors of moving pictures. There is the structure of the play — it takes place in the moments of bright light between the features, an inversion of the milliseconds of dark between each frame of film. There is the play of light and shadow in the conversations, the facial expressions, and the lives of these characters. Movies have imprinted their form on the psyches of these folks. Avery, so used to hiding within the artifice of film that real-life authenticity eludes him, feels that everyone, himself included, is just acting out a stereotyped role. An incidental character, another employee, tries to touch the blank screen after hours, as if yearning for connection with what its images had promised. Rose, the projectionist, even admits to an especially fitting sexual quirk: In her fantasies, she’s the only person in focus.
The Flick also seems to comment on the way film (and, unavoidably, theater also) uses time, by practically turning the usual approach on its head. Instead of compressing time by heightening action and/or tightening dialogue, director Michael O’Connell, adroitly complying with the script’s recommendations, lets time drag, like real life in a crappy job surely can. The conversations move at a slow stumble, spilling exposition like stray popcorn kernels. The pauses don’t refresh, they stretch into veritable deserts of awkwardness. Clocking in at about three hours (including the intermission), the show is nearly epic in length and so miniaturistic in its style and subject that it seems a little rebellion against conventional narrative values.
And yet, the thing is damned entertaining.
Baker has a great sense of the emotional contours of her characters, even though they’re still a long way from figuring themselves out. And as was the case with Third Rail’s production of The Aliens, The Flick benefits here from having Isaac Lamb as its lynchpin. As Sam, Lamb finds a rhythm that keeps things engaging — you might even say lively — despite the deliberately sluggardly pacing, and when he’s not speaking his face and body say even more about what pleasure is bubbling up or what pain is bringing him down.
Rose isn’t as fully fleshed out a character as Sam and Avery are, yet Rebecca Ridenour shines, bringing the offhanded sexual charge the part calls for, but also an undertone of sweetness to what could have been just your typical hot mess.
Jonathan Thompson doesn’t seem fully up to the challenge of playing Avery’s black-nerd intellectualism or his anguished reticence with the same sort of subtle command that Lamb and Ridenour bring, but he has several strong moments showing the tentative growth of friendship between Avery and Sam.
Together, these three characters give us a glimpse — a flicker, if you will — into themselves. For as little as happens in it, The Flick is about a lot of things: images and illusion, obsessions and anxieties, dreams and distractions. … Movies are just a reflection.