By 2010, most independently owned movie theaters around the United States were transitioning from 35mm film to digital projectors. It was more accessible and cost-effective, and big studio distributors began to announce they would soon stop producing 35mm film (Paramount became the first to do so in 2014). It seems ironic, perhaps, that this time in history would be captured in a play, but through Sunday, March 19, audiences have a chance to relive it at the JCC CenterStage in "The Flick" by Annie Baker.
"The Flick" opened Off-Broadway in March 2013 to little fanfare, but the play won both the Obie Award for Playwriting and the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize later that year. In 2014, "The Flick" won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It was only Baker's fifth play, but it quickly established the 30-something as an emerging American playwright.
The plot of "The Flick" follows three underpaid movie theater employees in small town Worcester, Massachusetts. As the play begins, Sam (D. Scott Adams) is training college-aged Avery (Willis Brooks) on his first day of work. As the two sweep popcorn and discuss how to clean the soda machine, there are long periods of silence. But no one's forgotten their lines; this is an Annie Baker play and the silences are intentionally written into the script. The third employee, Rose (Jessica Tasciotti), also works as a projectionist at the theater, loading 35mm films for each show. What follows is two and a half hours of mundane conversation and minimal action -- or, is it?
Because Baker's work often spotlights everyday characters and stories, the settings play important roles in each show. Here, the set design by Jerry Smith is particularly surprising for those unfamiliar with the premise of the show: as audience members walk in, they're greeted by rows of theater chairs not unlike those they're about to occupy for the next few hours. A nondescript wall with mismatched golden light fixtures stands behind the chairs, and a bright red carpet littered with popcorn runs down the middle of the rows. A crooked chandelier hangs haphazardly above. For anyone who's loved a small, vintage theater -- think Rochester's Cinema Theater or The Little (which still shows 35mm film) -- this set design is a familiar and much beloved sight.
David Runzo, a veteran in local theater circles and University of Rochester theater professor, directs the intimate cast of four. He has the tough task of encouraging his actors to explore the silences during this lengthy show at the risk of boring some audience members. And to his credit, Runzo has done a beautiful job. It's a show that feels as though it belongs to the actors (a sign of expert directing) and the actors, in turn, hand it to the audience.
Here's where the trouble comes in for "The Flick" -- though it's not a flaw with the JCC CenterStage production. For those unfamiliar with Baker's work, there are two things written into her scripts: setting (noted above) and silence. The first half of "The Flick" is slow moving. It mimics real life, where people don't constantly fill silences, especially not at work. Life is not inherently fast-paced.
After the first act ended on Sunday, nearly a quarter of the audience left during intermission. A man in the back of the auditorium shrugged angrily into his coat, muttering phrases like "dumb," "not engaging," and "waste of time." It's not unusual for Baker's shows to empty during intermission, though. They aren't written for people with short attention spans or those who want empty, easy entertainment.
The cast of "The Flick" is flawless. The four actors play characters that will remind audience members of former loves, their college-aged selves, or perhaps someone they once worked with. As Sam, the 35-year-old living in his parents' attic, D. Scott Adams is the oldest member of the cast. He's a welcome new face in the Rochester theater scene, and in this role, he unearths empathy and genuine likeability for a character that could easily be played as a societal failure.
As new employee Avery, School of the Arts graduate Willis Brooks brings to life an awkward, well-meaning film nerd. (He's juxtaposed with Sam and Rose, who are older and more worldly wise.) As Rose, Jessica Tasciotti embodies a recent college graduate who is at once flippant and vulnerable. Like Adams, Tasciotti could have played a stereotype, but she chooses to add another layer to a seemingly simple character. Rounding out the cast with two bit parts is UR student Bill McDonough, who makes the most of his several lines as a sleepy patron and a new employee.
"The Flick" is a show for anyone who's worked a job where their world has grown (perhaps too) small; for anyone who's been radically underpaid or thrown together with a motley crew of coworkers. It's a show for those who have fallen in love with the wrong person and stayed in a small town. It's a show for the everyman, and a story for film lovers.