Attention movie people who don’t think they’re theater people (especially if they’re movie people in New York City): there’s a play you really ought to see anyway. Annie Baker’s “The Flick,” currently at the intimate Barrow Street Theater in New York’s Greenwich Village, is a Pulitzer-Prize-winner with a theme that seems, on the surface, rather unlike the sort of grand stuff that wins Pulitzer Prizes.
Over the course of two acts in a little over three hours, “The Flick” lets the audience get to know three young (or, in one case, youngish) people working in the eponymous movie theater in Massachusetts in the summer of 2012. Veteran Sam (Matthew Maher), a voluble, bald-pated guy in his thirties, shows the ropes to Avery (Aaron Clifton Moten), a very soft-spoken and awkward African-American who seems barely out of his teens. The action moves very slowly; the two fellows sweep the floor, reflect on the sometimes disgusting things people leave there, and begin talking movies. Soon into their relationship, Sam starts playing the “six degrees” game with Avery, and is staggered by his movie knowledge. Avery’s movie knowledge extends way past movies Sam doesn’t even know; at one point, while sweeping, Avery whistles the song “Le Tourbillon” from Truffaut’s “Jules and Jim,” and Sam clearly couldn’t be less interested in Georges Delerue’s tune. (The play’s exit music is from “The 400 Blows” if I’m not mistaken.) Eventually, we find out that Avery is at the very least depressive; one scene shows him in the darkened theater, on the phone, leaving a message for his therapist. He’s also a man on a kind of mission; he confides to Sam that he wanted to work at The Flick because it’s one of the last theaters in the area with a 35mm projector, and he’s VERY anti-digital. He gets the theater’s projectionist, the feisty, bluff Rose (Louisa Krause), to teach him how to work the machine. Much to Sam’s resentment. The two fellows end up having equally fraught exchanges with the theater’s sole female employee.
The play’s excited some controversy because of its slow pace. In the first act, there are long stretches in which the characters just do their jobs. And then, when they deign to speak to each other, they seem to be speaking about nothing, or about inside-baseball (for some) stuff such as movie references and film-versus-digital. But there’s a very good reason the play got the award it did. It rewards close attention. In fact, it demands close attention. The grand trick it performs is to make an amazing human drama out of a very hermetic corner of human exchange and endeavor, and it needs the time it takes, the stretches of breathing, to bring that drama home. The modesty is the message: this is the first play I’ve been to in some time at which the actors (all of them superb) haven’t been somehow artificially amplified.And also, as it happens, despite its veneer of naturalism, the play’s writing operates, eventually, at near Stoppard-like levels of cleverness. The stuff the three friends/antagonists talk about in the first act, the allusions and “aesthetic” concerns they mull over, are, besides things in and of themselves, thematic land mines laid down to be tread over in the second act. Every one of them pays off in a way that's not just theatrically surprising, but emotionally resonant. A way that reflects on why both film and theater remain such potentially powerful art forms. And you don’t have to get all the film references in order for their deeper significance to pay off. But if you do, all the better.