A man stands under harsh fluorescent strip-lights, slowly – painfully slowly – mopping the floor. We watch for what seems like hours as he squeezes out his mop, slides it dully across the ground and repeats, interminably. There’s no wink towards the audience, no suggestion that some comic reward is about to follow. It never does.
The Flick, transferring from a Pulitzer Prize-winning run in New York, is a play about a two guys and a girl working in a decaying old cinema in Massachusetts, one of the last in the state to still use a 35mm film projector.
They spend their time sweeping popcorn and talking about movies – one has an almost preternatural gift for playing Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon – but this is a far-cry from the pop-culture bravado and machine-gun dialogue of thematically similar works by Tarantino or Kevin Smith. The Flick is glacially slow, often appearing to forget about its audience altogether. Its ammunition is awkwardness, quiet self-loathing and the brittle defensiveness of essentially nice people trying to make sense of life.
The audience is seated behind an invisible film screen, the cinema’s projector blinking at you out of the darkness. When the lights go up, you face the rows of seats that make up The Flick’s micro-universe. The first half charts the slow breaking down of barriers between geeky new cinema employee Avery and his even geekier supervisor Sam. Their awkwardness is our awkwardness.
But the green shoots of their relationships – their good-natured jibes, secret yearnings and stuttered confessions – have more power for being hard-earned.
The cloud of the impending digital switchover hangs over them, casting a particularly long shadow over Avery, who relates to films more than he relates to people. There’s a fatalism to Annie Baker’s play, an understanding that this simple womb-like world won’t survive the pressure and pace of life outside the cinema.
At three and a quarter hours, The Flick is a long and sometimes dificult slog. But stick with it and you’ll find it unfurls with the slow and fragile beauty of a flower.
First published in City A.M.