When Annie Baker’s Pulitzer-winning “The Flick” debuted at New York’s Playwrights Horizons in 2013, there was a bit of a flap over its ponderous, mostly eventless length. Some spectators balked at watching three employees of “a falling-apart movie theater in Worcester County, [Massachusetts]” sweep up popcorn, mop spilled soda and awkwardly, sometimes mutely, interact over the course of three hours. (And Baker’s new play, “John,” which recently opened in New York, isn’t any shorter.)
I admit that when I experienced the play for the first time, though I admired it immensely, I felt I would have gotten the idea if given half the wordless “walkthrough” — as the characters dub the endless loop of cleanup that punctuates the theater’s screenings. But seeing “The Flick” again, in Bridget Kathleen O’Leary’s heartfelt, oft-hilarious production by Gloucester Stage (through Sept. 12), I found myself less annoyed.
Much as there is a reason for “Long Day’s Journey into Night” being just that, “The Flick,” in its funny, tender, far less grandstanding way, earns its duration. As O’Neill makes us feel the visceral exhaustion of his tangled Tyrones, Baker draws us into the tedium of wary, unrequited lives in which what happens is a series of sad, sweet blips in what does not.
At the top of the play (which also won an Obie and the Susan Smith Blackburn Award), Sam, a 30-something slacker sporting a bald pate and backwards Red Sox cap, is showing the ropes to newbie Avery, a 20-year-old, film-obsessed African-American nerd who is taking a semester off from the private college where his father teaches. For the first few scenes, these two make small talk (some of it about movies: Sam’s a fan, Avery a connoisseur), feel each other out and play convoluted rounds of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon that reveal what a heady, high-level film geek Avery — and, by extension, Baker — is.
The third main character is projectionist Rose, whose slightly more exalted position allows her to flex muscles both professional and sexual. Nor is she demeaned by the plastic nametag and purple polo shirt the men must don. She can flaunt, or perhaps hide behind, a personal style that, at GS in costumer Lara Jardullo’s creations, consists of a sloppy, complex layering of grunge, Goth, rips, stripes, lumberjack and Nirvana.
O’Leary’s production, broader than Shawn LaCount’s fine 2014 staging for Company One, brings out all the humor in Baker’s evocation of inarticulate desperation. Nael Nacer’s sputtering, early-Mamet-esque Sam, too inhibited to express his feelings until they pour out of him in a manner both wrenching and unseemly, speaks volumes with his face. His Sam appears constantly staggered by the coincidence, connection and profundity of things.
Marc Pierre’s Avery, his vocabulary more expansive, his spectacles bordering on goggles, is more tightly wound, as if fighting to contain the trauma in his closet. In one of the play’s most touching scenes, with Sam and Rose off at Subway, he confides by phone in his vacationing therapist. “Maybe,” he says almost resignedly, “it’s never gonna get better … Like maybe I’m just gonna be that weird depressed guy and I should just, like, accept it. And that’ll be the life I get. And that’ll be okay.”
How ironic, then, that freewheeling Rose turns out to envy the morose Avery his socioeconomic rung up. When, near the end of the play, job security threatens to hit the fan, she admonishes the black kid from the better side of the tracks: “And this is our like — this isn’t like a job we have while we go to college. This is what we like — feed ourselves with.” Ironically, her mixed ministrations may have taught Avery more than college has — that every man is an island, drifting, aimlessly and self-protectively, on a sea of celluloid, cell phones, social media and ego. Even Rose’s sex fantasies, she reveals, are about herself (the other characters are blurry). But at GS, the expressive Melissa Jesser captures the forlornness beneath the character’s aggressive, come-hither foundering.
The setting and frame of “The Flick” are both clever and symbolic. Two theaters face off: The one we are sitting in and the crumbling, eponymous mid-Massachusetts edifice where Sam, Rose and Avery guard their respective emotions and dead-end jobs. We are where “The Flick’s” movie screen should be, the white flicker of its old 35mm projector in our faces during the snippets of old, unseen films that separate the play’s more hyper-natural encounters.
At GS, in Courtney Nelson’s set design, the old theater’s aura of moldy carpet, beaten-up seats, snack detritus and scotch-taped infrastructure is well invoked, as are the catchy/sweeping soundtracks of films gone by in David Remedios’ sound design. But at the center of this crossroad of bombast, invisible Technicolor and seedy surrounds is Baker’s humane if protracted proof that struggling little lives can be as ridiculously funny as the Stooges and as heartbreaking as Vivien Leigh.
Carolyn Clay was for many years the theater editor and chief drama critic for the Boston Phoenix. She is a past winner of the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism.