Saving 'The Flick': Off-Broadway hit ponders the future of an indie movie theatre
Rare indeed it is that any Times Square-area play, Broadway or Off, with no bold-faced names among cast, playwright or director can generate at least three major New York Times pieces. But Annie Baker’s current play The Flick, about a struggling single-screen theatre in Worcester County, Mass., and its three struggling employees, has had sold-out shows during its extended run at 42nd Street’s Playwrights Horizons, which ends Sunday.
Yes, the cast is terrific, their dilemmas stirring (more later), but the damsel in distress here doesn’t have long hair or long legs but short lines and a short life expectancy. The dubious fate of the theatre itself makes The Flick, which is the name of the theatre, a dramatic spin on the children’s classic tome The Little Engine That Could. Call it The Little Theatre That Could.
What grabs eyes and touches hearts (at least for audiences who toil not in live theatre but the movie theatre business) is the play’s amazing set, which provides a wide screen, wall-to-wall view of the shabby coral and beige, roughly 200-seat auditorium that is the entire stage, the venue’s vinyl walls (four speakers and four light sconces) and ceiling (two large fans and florescent overheads).
Fortunately, the theater’s floors between rows (usually ripe for cleaning) remain unseen. (Über-designer David Rockwell clearly had no hand in this auditorium; David Zinn served as admirable overseer of the play’s scenic and costume design.)
Sounds and flickering projector lights also contribute to the veracity. Pounding movie scores pierce the dark room during unseen end credits, lights go up as the projector clatters to a rest and the theatre’s two-man cleaning squad goes to work. Need it be said that The Flick is one of the last theatres in the Worcester area to remain 35mm and stuck way back in the previous century? (Its projector is even called the Century.)
Co-starring with the set are the play’s human characters, three lost but worthy souls who run the place for absentee and unseen owner Steve. There’s bald, speech-impaired Sam (Matthew Maher), a sweet but mentally slow 35-year-old projectionist wannabe who has found a second home at the theatre while serving for years as popcorn, soda, box-office and cleanup guy. He’s totally in love with the younger Rose (Louisa Krause), a cute (green hair aside) wild-child local cycling through boyfriends and excess but having somehow found her own kind of orgone box in the theatre’s projection booth as the resident projectionist.
Finally, there’s 20-year-old newcomer Avery (Aaron Clifton Moten), Sam’s trainee and a refugee from a broken home in which his professor father (a linguistics and semiotics professor, no less) left his mother and injured the son. Bright, articulate and passionate about film (the references fly), he’s on a break from college as he struggles with the family trauma. As the iconic, obsessed film buff (and no doubt closest to the playwright’s alter ego), he’s also a human database of all things movies and, furiously anti-digital, a passionate defender of all things celluloid and analog. The endangered theatre seems the perfect temple for him.
The trio mull the ethical ramifications of people sneaking food from the outside into the theatre (Sam takes a “philosophical” stance against this even though he was guilty of same) and speculate about owner Steve trying to sell the venue. After hours, they take a busman’s holiday and run The Wild Bunch, one of the many old orphaned 35mm prints that clutter the booth.
Newbie Avery learns from mentor Sam that part of the ceiling had come down but Steve wouldn’t pay a penny to fix it (apparently a pro tem job did the trick). Also annoying is that Steve refuses to upgrade to nachos at the counter.
As a picture of things that can go down after the picture winds down, The Flick give us extended scenes of Sam and Avery cleaning the room as they play the parlor game of “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” in a verbal contest to link two unlikely stars in a chain of the films they’ve been in. No surprise that Avery cannot be stumped and even navigates the long chain that joins the unlikely pairing of Pauly Shore and Ian Holm. (Lots of film references pepper this three-hour play, a length that has stirred some criticism but nothing compared to the raves that came in.)
In the theatre between shows or after closing, Sam and Avery face a quiet war zone. One annoyance is the laggard who is sound asleep after the picture ends. Less amusing are the challenges of cleaning the place, not just gum off seats or food-coated floors but filthy restrooms better left not described.
And, yes, with the unseen cinema owner Steve always AWOL, there’s some skimming off ticket sales as the three staffers confiscate some stubs and resell so they can have their “dinner money.” Avery balks but turns that corner when convinced that it’s their well-deserved “employee tradition” and his reluctance would destroy that. Only a later closer look at the theatre’s books from a prospective buyer may awaken suspicions. And then there are the oversized jerseys staff will be required to wear when new proprietors take over.
Yes, new owners and digital conversion bring good and bad. Those jerseys aside, there are better ways to clean the butter dispenser and no more splicing together of previews. And Avery, who quit The Flick once digital was declared the winner, returns to gleefully haul away as booty a bunch of 35mm reels and prints, further assuring that celluloid, like life, will go on.
Veracity abounds here. Sally Strasser, owner of the two-screen State Theater in the small Adirondack town of Tupper Lake, New York, was thrilled to notice that the play’s seats are identical to hers in one room.
As if mimicking many of today’s films, The Flick unfolds as short bursts of scenes but borrows from the past with its many fadeouts. Much of the action comes with existential despair (Avery endlessly scraping seats; Sam scraping the icky bottoms of the large waste containers; both employees endlessly sweeping). But nothing here is depressing, as the play is a celebration of survival and moving on. And of the power of movies in all lives.
Playwright Baker, with a number of off-Broadway productions and awards to her credit, has a growing cult following, no doubt boosted by a recent New Yorker magazine profile. She just crossed into her 30s but grew up a serious young movie fanatic in Amherst, Mass. In fact, the third of the three New York Times pieces focuses on the buff-in-the-making aspect of her life that as a teen took her to a local mall for compulsive film-viewing (Pulp Fiction was the big one), to frequent consultations with video-store savants regarding what to see, and into repertory immersion at places like New York’s Film Forum. With The Flick, she works again with her frequent collaborator and director Sam Gold.
Already having had an extended run and bursting with potential for expansion and improvement for the real big screen, The Flick, like its star theatre, need not end. If adapted as the kind of cool, knowing little hipster indie that might attract a cool, knowing cast, it might make a good bet for art houses. In an era when anything can get resurrected (Moose Murders? Heaven’s Gate?), anything is possible.