Curling up with a good novel — permitting an author to close the door artfully on your world for a spell and open up theirs, gradually, to you: That’s one of the pleasures of solitary, literary escape.
It’s also much like the sensation you get watching “The Flick,” Annie Baker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play being accorded a lovely, incisively realized regional premiere by Signature Theatre. Over the course of a surprisingly riveting 3
Baker, who frequently sets her plays in extremely ordinary, topically placid situations, is an artist of eavesdropping. She draws you into humdrum lives and holds you with the vitality of the characters’ spirits and the warmth of her powers of observation. As with the measured momentum of a fine novel, her characters’ quirks and anxieties and passions are revealed by degrees. The marvel is that a playgoer rarely feels the urge to turn the pages faster than the drama prescribes.
The play takes place a few years ago in a movie theater in central Massachusetts called the Flick, the kind with stained ceiling tiles that struggles to stay in business by screening such classics as “The Wild Bunch” and “Citizen Kane.” (James Kronzer’s resonant set has the audience facing banks of those familiar, cheaply upholstered seats, the projection window centered above.) The story springs to life when the house goes dead — in other words, after the movies end and the lights go up and the patrons have filed out, leaving behind their concession-stand debris. The jobs of Sam (Evan Casey), the stoic old hand, and Avery (Thaddeus McCants), the insecure newbie, are of the usual sort, staffing the box office and tidying up between showings.
We’re immersed here in the daily, numbing rituals of minimum-wage life, and yet “The Flick” feels anything but routine. Much of the first half-hour of the play — orchestrated all the way through with an acutely humane rhythm by director Joe Calarco — is consumed by Sam and Avery sweeping and mopping, sweeping and mopping. And, satisfyingly, by a lot more that’s revealed in what’s said, and not said. Quickly, it becomes apparent that Avery is not only awkward and smart, with an encyclopedic knowledge of movies, but also deeply troubled and taking on the job for reasons other than monetary. Sam is bright, too, but his intelligence is muffled by an ineffable sorrow. Trapped in menial employment and frozen emotionally, he’s unable to act on his attraction to the beautiful, fickle projectionist, Rose (Laura C. Harris).
Sam is the least showy of the three bravura roles. Baker bestows on McCants a long, revealing monologue, which the actor performs excellently, and Harris is so persuasive as the restless, elusive Rose that you can easily conjure every one of the disastrous relationships she has no doubt sabotaged. But it is Casey’s extraordinary turn that anchors this production, imbuing it with its penetrating soulfulness. That this actor, often cast with solid results in supporting parts, gets the opportunity to reveal the breadth of his talents in the far meatier role of Sam is a particularly gratifying outcome.
“The Flick,” in part, charts the difference between the often thrilling compression of experience that movies tend to evoke and the harder, meaner burdens of the everyday we all have to bear. Even with his flaws, Sam comes across as heroic in this regard, and Casey a deeply affecting conveyance for that notion. Beyond sounding precisely as though he were from North Brookfield, the New England town where the theater is located, Casey projects the sort of fortitude that lets you believe Sam is a man able to suffer in admirable silence.
When Sam finally confesses his feelings, in a scene that Harris plays tenderly and expertly along with Casey, the effect is wonderful. As Sam opens up, Casey creates the impression of a man growing in stature before our eyes; the impact on Harris’s Rose is just as clear. This, Baker shows us, is stage drama fully activated. The exchange occurs with an honesty and urgency that movies can’t quite match.
“The Flick” has other dimensions: a moral one, certainly, concerning the way in which Sam and Rose dishonorably victimize Avery, a young man who craves the just treatment and respect of real friendship. (McCants gets better and better as the play unfolds, as Avery is compelled to have some of his worst fears about people confirmed.) A playful dimension exists as well, revealed in a pure love for movies and the funny games of film trivia in which Avery excels.
You can play, too. The play is punctuated by movie clips visible in the projector’s lens and by dialogue from vintage films of every genre (kudos to sound designer Eric Shimelonis). Count how many you can recognize. More important, though, commune with the characters so delightfully fleshed out by Baker and inhabited so freshly by these actors. That’s the exhilarating ticket.
The Flick by Annie Baker. Directed by Joe Calarco. Set, James Kronzer; costumes, Frank Labovitz; lighting, Andrew Cissna; sound, Eric Shimelonis; assistant direction, Rex Daugherty. With William Vaughan. About 3 hours 15 minutes. Tickets: $40-$97. Through April 17 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. Call 703-820-9771 or visit sigtheatre.org.