Stage Door Review
Tuesday, October 15, 2019
by Annie Baker, directed by Mitchell Cushman
Outside the March & Crow’s Theatre, Streetcar Crowsnest, 345 Carlaw Avenue, Toronto
October 6-November 2, 2019
“The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men.” Ezekiel 25:17
Toronto has been lucky enough to have seen two plays by American writer Annie Baker – John (2015) and The Aliens (2010) both in 2017 – which won her fans for the naturalism of her slow pacing and minimalist dialogue. Now Outside the March and Crow’s Theatre have joined forces to present Baker’s best-known work The Flick (2013) which won 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Over the course of more than three hours Baker takes us into the lives of three workers in a cinema we would likely never give a second thought to – two cleaners and a projectionist. Insignificant as the characters and what they say may seem, Baker’s play show that their lives still reflect the grand themes of drama – friendship, love, betrayal, shifts in history and the nature of art. Insightful direction from Mitchell Cushman and immaculate performances from the entire cast make this a must-see for all theatre-lovers.
The play is set in a one-screen movie theatre known as The Flick in Worcester County, Massachusetts, which still shows movies using a 35mm projector. The theatre owner Steve, whom we never see, has been letting the place go downhill, but he’s one of the last hold-outs in the county against digital projection and that has won him favour with the die-hard film-should-be-on-film crowd.
We meet Sam (Colin Doyle), aged 35, who has been working as an usher and cleaner before Steve took over The Flick. He is in the process of training the new young Black man Avery (Durae McFarlane), aged 20, how to do the job. The inherent irony in the situation is that no training is needed to sweep popcorn into a standing dust pan. Sam doesn’t necessarily have more knowledge about how to clean up more difficult stains. His one tip to Avery is that bits of lettuce have to be picked up by hand.
When they enter the movie theatre Avery and Sam have been debating Avery’s assertion that there have been no great American movies made since Pulp Fiction (1994). Sam thinks Avatar (2009) disproves Avery’s point but to Avery it just confirms it. Eventually, we learn that this is Avery’s summer off from university where his father is a professor of semiotics. For Avery, Pierrot le Fou, Barry Lyndon and Andrei Rublev are great movies, whereas as for Sam the Lord of the Rings trilogy is great. Sam calls Avery a film snob and Avery says that he knows the two of them can have no meaningful discussion on the topic.
The projectionist at the theatre is Rose (Amy Keating), who Sam claims is a lesbian. Despite this, it is evident that Sam has a massive crush on Rose and has had for a long time. What Rose is most concerned about in meeting Avery is that he learn about the “dinner money” scheme that ushers at The Flick have been running since before Steve took over. With the excuse that they are all underpaid, they resell ticket stubs and split the money three ways. Although it’s against Avery’s better judgment, Sam and Rose finally convince him to go along with the scheme.
With this set-up it might appear that nothing particularly dramatic could develop. In fact, the opposite is true. As in Pinter, though here in a fully American idiom, pauses and slight shifts in the emphasis of words depict a shift in power among the three characters. Avery has chosen to work at The Flick because he thinks film must be on celluloid and Rose agrees with him and his taste. While Sam thinks of Rose as his girl, Rose is clearly more interested in Avery. When Sam has to be away at a wedding, Avery discovers that Rose is not a lesbian at all. He discovers this while they are both watching The Wild Bunch (1969) that Rose is privately screening for Avery. It is no accident that Baker chooses this film since its subject is the inevitable obsolescence of six-shooter-toting outlaws in the Wild West in the face of new inventions like machine guns and grenades.
A change in the dynamics of the three workers and in how the movie theatre is run brings about a crisis for Avery, whose view of the world becomes even bleaker than it was before. As he says, “I mean, I think the truth is that you can’t trust anybody.... Just like, don’t expect anything. Don’t expect things to turn out well in the end.... Every man for himself, you know?” In fact, Avery’s guide for these thoughts is Samuel L. Jackson’s character Jules in Pulp Fiction who, before emptying his revolver into Brett, quotes Ezekiel 25:17: "The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men”.
This is a major and saddening character development in a figure whom we first regarded as simply a geeky guy still trying to cope with a traumatic event in his past. It is a sign that the world of the play has become a colder, less enlightened place where both friends and aesthetics can be betrayed for money. In the microcosm of a decrepit movie theatre and its workers Baker has detailed no less than the decay of values in the US.
Each of the actors gives stunning, multilayered performances even though Cushman has forbidden any conscious actorliness to ensure that the performances are as natural as possible. Colin Doyle’s Sam may be in change of training, but the mere fact that he has been doing this same, unchallenging job from before the time of the present owner means, depressingly, that he has already reached the peak of the little he has wanted to achieve in life. Doyle conveys both Sam’s comfort with his situation and his embarrassment vis-à-vis Avery, whom he sees has set much higher goals for himself. As as sign of his total lack of initiative he has let his love for Rose go unspoken while suffering from her lack of interest.
Durae McFarlane makes Avery who has an unnaturally encyclopedic knowledge of cinema, from trash to high art, appear to be a high-functioning young man with obsessive compulsive disorder or Asperger syndrome. In a brilliantly low-key manner McFarlane shows that Avery is unable to have any social interactions that are not awkward. The only long, free-flowing speech he has in the play besides his final imitation of Jules in Pulp Fiction is a long phone call he has with his therapist where he relates a recent, disturbing dream. The fact the restricted world Avery lives in has no room for the high values he places on ethics, friendship and art signals the death of idealism in the world in general.
Amy Keating portrays Rose as a complicated young woman who does not really know who she is or what she wants out of life. Rose says she knows that something is wrong with her but she does not know what it is except that it may have to do with the uncontrollable feelings of lust that come over her. Keating ably depicts Rose’s effort at maintaining an outer façade of being in control while revealing Rose’s inner turmoil that constantly threatens her stability.
Nick Blais has recreated the interior of The Flick by setting up five to six rows of real cinema seats facing the audience. As lighting designer he creates vivid impressions of moving beams of light timed to various soundtracks streaming from the projector over the seats on stage and in the audience. Outside the March, a company well-known for its immersive productions, has had designer Anahita Dehbonehie decorate the lobby of the Streetcar Crowsnest as an old-fashioned movie theatre lobby with posters, red velvet curtains and a popcorn machine.
From at least as early as Nathanael West’s novel The Day of the Locust (1939), movies have been depicted as a realm where people escape to forget the unhappy circumstances they live in, a world of manufactured dreams to numb them to the failure of the American Dream. Annie Baker’s play does much the same by focussing not on the dreamers but on the people who pick up after people’s distraction with mass-produced dreams has ended. It’s no accident that Baker calls one character who has fallen asleep and has stayed on in the theatre after the movie is over “The Dreaming Man” (Brendan McMurtry-Howlett).
The Flick is long and the dialogue sparse and seemingly inconsequential, but the pauses are naturalistic and it takes very little time to adjust to its rhythm. The dialogue may seem trivial but as with Pinter the subtext looms larger than the few words the characters say. Sam likes to play a six degrees of separation game with Avery by naming two unlikely actors and seeing how a chain of movie appearance could link the two. Avery is an expert at this game, but like the entire play it has two sides. On the one hand, Avery can prove how all people are linked. On the other, as the play emphasizes, the very nature of the game assumes that the two people in question are separated. At the end of The Flick we see that it is not ideals that link people, but that the world really has become, as Avery realizes, “every man for himself”.
Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.
Photos: (from top) Amy Keating as Rose and Durae McFarlane as Avery; Durae McFarlane as Avery and Colin Doyle as Sam; Amy Keating as Rose. © 2019 Dahlia Katz.
For tickets, visit www.crowstheatre.com.