One of the most interesting theater companies in the Valley is Tempe’s Stray Cat Theatre. Last night I had the pleasure of seeing their first offering of the 2013 – 2014 season, Annie Baker’s 2013 play, The Flick. I loved this play and this production.
Last spring’s Off-Broadway run at Playwrights Horizons garnered rapturous reviews from theater critics but was not without its detractors among theater goers. Negative feedback from subscribers prompted the company’s artistic director to send an email to subscribers offering an explanation of the play and their decision to stage it. Stray Cat is the first American company to offer the play since its New York premier.
For those critical of the play, the issue is its pace, its length, or both. Ms. Baker works confidently in the negative space. Silence is a rare commodity in the theater, and a powerful one. At times, what is said, or left unsaid, hangs conspicuously in the air between the characters. For the director and actors this is a razor-thin line to tread. Cut the silence short and the moment is diminished. Extend the silence too long and the play drags. The way I know they struck just the right balance is that during those long, loud silences I never took my eyes off the actors’ faces.
When the lights go down the audience is 85 minutes from the intermission and nearly three hours from the curtain call. In an era when communication comes in easily digestible bites (or bytes) of 140 characters or less, the O’Neill-like length for a drama with only three major characters and a single set is a challenge for the audience. Four people in my row fidgeted through the last 30 minutes of Act I and left at intermission. The play challenges ones attention span but it is very much worth the effort.
The plot is simple. Employees of a failing, single-screen, movie theater, one of the last in the state still using a film, rather than digital projector. Sam, Rose, and Avery confront the challenges of their respective lives and yearn for connection. Thirty-something Sam, lives in his parents’ attic, finds validation and frustration in his job at the theater and has an unrequited love for Rose, the projectionist.
Newly hired Avery, a 20-year film aficionado is taking a term off from the university. Struggling with demons of his own, he seeks to establish a friendship with Sam, his coworker and mentor in the inner workings of the theater. Avery is clearly the smartest of the three but also the most vulnerable.
Rose, also 30-something, has a vaguely undefined sexual orientation. All we really know about her interests is that she pays no attention to Sam while being boldly blatant about her interest in young Avery. I think the emotional tone of the play is set by Rose when she says (I hope I am quoting this correctly); “Do you ever feel like there is something wrong with you but you may go through your whole life without ever finding out what?” By the end of the play that mystery remains largely unsolved.
American playwright Annie Baker has twice won the Obie Award for Best New American Play for her plays Circle Mirror Transformation (2009) and The Aliens (2010). Her play first play, Body Awareness (2008) was nominated for Drama Desk and Out Critics Circle Awards. I was not familiar with Ms. Baker’s work but, based on this experience, I hope I have the opportunity to see more.
As one would expect from a play set in a movie theater, there are many references to movies in The Flick . I found a wonderful on-line piece in the New York Times where the playwright talks about the movies she felt provided some inspiration for The Flick. There is a brief audio recording of the playwright discussing the relevance of each films.