Lately, the world’s been getting me down. Hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, mass shootings and devastating North Bay fires burning way too close for comfort to my own mother. I mean, isn’t everything the worst? I’ve been exhausted from anxiety, feeling hopeless about anything ever being good again. It was probably the perfect frame of mind in which to see Annie Baker’s The Flick, now in production at the University of Nevada, Reno’s Church Fine Arts building.
This small, lovely play offers something few others do—space to breathe and think. It’s a meditation on the subtle, random unfairnesses in life, big and small, and the pain of watching the world pass you by.
At The Flick, one of the last cinemas in Massachusetts running a 35-millimeter film projector, three employees keep the dilapidated, single-screen theater limping along while its absent owner debates upgrading to digital. As the play opens, it’s the first day on the job for Avery (Jelani Best), a young African American with glasses who’s obsessed with 35-millimeter films and The Flick’s ancient projector. Training him is Sam (Jason Pitak), a 30-something has-been who still lives with his parents and keeps getting passed over for promotions—namely, by Rose (Karly Puccinelli), a snarky girl with green hair who has unwittingly captured Sam’s heart.
Days pass mind-numbingly in the same way: The three wear their dingy uniforms and sweep the same aisles, dump the same garbage into the same cans. The audience is party to long silences, broken by the odd interjection about the garbage people leave behind, debates about what movies can be considered “great” or the odd round of Six Degrees that connects the likes of Pauly Shore with Ian Holm and proves Avery’s film prowess.
Yet what’s really happening is the stuff of life—issues of class and race, the alienation of a society ruled by technology that stops valuing its past, the cruelty of unrequited love. The play is not written with a poison pen, nor does it attempt to plunge too deeply or rant too long about life’s inequities—with gorgeously wrought, natural-sounding prose that feels true and real and painful and exultant and absolutely nails it. This story is small yet mighty.
Its three actors squeeze every drop of power out of silence, gesture and tone of voice. Pitak’s Sam is lovable and pitiful to watch, and Puccinelli gives Rose the exact right mixture of too-cool attitude with inner vulnerability. But most worthy of praise is Best’s portrayal of Avery. His first-act, one-sided phone call to an on-vacation therapist is so painful, raw and heartbreaking it feels impossible that it’s not real. These college students’ acting chops are nothing short of impressive.
When The Flick first opened at Playwrights Horizon in New York in 2013, critics loved it. And it went on to win that year’s Obie Award and the 2014 Pulitzer Prize. But many in that debut audience walked out, or never returned after intermission. It’s a quiet play—many might say too quiet—in which very little actually happens. But the little earthquakes under the surface are so resonant and true to life that, if you can bear the silence, you’ll be moved.