Annie Baker’s excruciatingly funny 2013 play, “The Flick,” is back on the boards, none the worse for winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The funky Barrow Street Theater is a good fit for this sweetly demented tragicomedy set in Worcester County, Mass., in one of the last movie houses in the state that still runs giant film reels on a 35-millimeter projector. Like the rundown industrial region that can barely support even this seedy uniplex, the last three ushers left working the house are doomed for extinction — only no one seems to have broken the news to them.
Helmer Sam Gold recreates his hyper-naturalistic take on the material for this 16-week limited engagement, in a brilliantly engineered production that features the original, dead-perfect cast of four. Sam, the 35-year-old head usher played with unflinching honesty by Matthew Maher, is quietly, desperately in love with the unattainable projectionist, Rose, a green-haired vixen played with deadpan sex appeal by Louisa Krause. Rose looks down on Sam (in every sense) from the overhead instrument booth, and when she does come down to play, she humiliates Sam by making a beeline for the new usher, 20-year-old Avery, a rich college kid reduced to a quivering bundle of neuroses in Aaron Clifton Moten’s lacerating performance.
Not that Avery is anyone’s idea of a stud. “I’d rather be watching a movie,” he admits.
Baker’s signature style draws its dark humor from the unnerving candor of her closely observed characters and the authenticity of their dialogue. The scribe gets real belly laughs just from polling these three on what constitutes a “great” American movie. Earthbound Sam picks the metaphysical fantasy “Avatar” (“a work of genius”), while scrappy Rose predictably goes for “Million Dollar Baby.” Avery, a disappointment to his rich parents, reveals a rebellious side when he chooses “Pulp Fiction.” Like the class and regional idioms that Baker nails with devastating accuracy, film tastes help define people and what they expect from the movies — and from life.
The awkward mating dance of these three misfits takes place in more than three hours of real time. That elongated time frame works for the first act because it reflects the stultifying, stupefying, brain-eating boredom of the no-exit lives these socially alienated characters are trapped in. By extension, it also suggests the limitations of the world outside the theater where they’ve found temporary refuge. Sam, Rose, and Avery may not have much in common, but performing their work rituals while playing a game of “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” cushions them from the life outside the movie theater where, as Avery puts it, “everything is horrible and sad.”
Baker creates the illusion of claustrophobic timelessness with the careful buildup of smothering details: the single shoe that Avery finds underneath one of the seats; the tile that suddenly drops from the ceiling of the dilapidated theater; the movie patron who is still sleeping in his seat when the lights come up. She develops her characters the same way, by layering on fragments of information that provide insights into their lives, or, at least, into the lives of Sam and Avery. Rose remains an enigma, which Jane Cox articulates in the dramatic way she lights her face.
The labored tempo that works in the first act becomes strained in the second. We’ve adjusted to the work pace and are caught up in the characters. But the digital world is pounding at the door, and to keep putting off the day of reckoning is just cruel.