This is why I love the theater, or keep coming back to it, in any case: It holds my attention like nothing else. It may be my age, and it most certainly has to do with the multi-screen age we live in, but I can barely get through a film, or anything more than a half-hour TV show, without distraction; I barely crack a book, even on an e-reader, anymore; months ago I had to make myself turn off my iPod shuffle and listen to records all the way through (it was a lovely and rewarding experiment; it didn’t last). On my most recent birthday, my simple wish was to sit home with my family and watch a movie all the way through with them—one I’d been putting off for decades, Stop Making Sense (we all loved it). How sad is that?
This struck me powerfully last week during Annie Baker’s The Flick, which happens to be set in a struggling single-screen movie theater, and which happens to be a bit of an exercise—an entirely salutary and rewarding one, thankfully—in attention-span maintenance. Much had been written about the show’s glacial pace and 200-minute running time (including by Playwrights Horizons’ very own artistic director), and indeed the first buzz I heard about the play months ago, delivered in a vaguely scandalized whisper, was “It’s three-and-a-half hours long.” So I’d been steeling myself; I consider myself something of an Annie Baker fanboy, but her last theatrical effort quite memorably, and painfully, did not hold my attention.
I needn’t have worried. While I think some colleagues may have overstated the play’s greatness, and its subject and style—aimless but endearing nerds digressively arguing about movies and trying to make sense of their inchoate lives—almost guarantee that it will be overrated by a certain similar class of aimless nerds (critics), The Flick (which closed on Sunday) is inarguably a great achievement, and a joy, and another worthy entry in the unfolding Baker canon.
I should probably say the Baker/Gold canon, since director Sam Gold’s contribution is inextricably linked to the play’s success, and while I did have some fun trying to imagine what another future production might look like, I know that Baker’s work isn’t director- or actor-proof; she herself described to me a non-Gold production of The Aliens that elided the show’s lengthy pauses, and accordingly sucked.
But here’s the point: I can’t recall the last time I’ve heard an audience so intently silent for so long as I did last Saturday. It wasn’t quite the pin-drop snap to attention that sometimes happens in the theater when something really major or suspenseful is going down onstage (though that happened here, too); it was more a general attentiveness, a kind of relaxed but alert wakefulness, to the finest detail. While watching characters frozen for several seconds at a time in mid-thought, or craning to see two crucial and entirely inaudible scenes of connection taking place behind the picture window of a small projection room, my mind didn’t wander—at least, not outside the entirely sympathetic, enveloping, reverberant world the play created, a place we somehow shared with the characters to a degree I’ve seldom felt in the theater. This may partly be the byproduct of a kind of literal mirroring, as we sat in a row of seats, facing a row of seats, in set designer David Zinn’s perfect simulacrum of a tiny cinema.
It wasn’t just the space the play mastered, it was also time. We often think of playwriting “craft” as having something to do with plot and structure, but the meticulous crafting that Baker (with Gold) put into their work is more about creating a living theatrical world and locating arresting moments within it, even if in the case of The Flick those moments last long enough to be movements. I’m reminded of another playwright whose work is finely entangled with its realization, Jackie Sibblies Drury; someone recently said of her that what she’s doing with her plays is “curating experience.” That’s close to a name for what Baker and Gold did with The Flick: created a kind of installation, and placed their quietly squirming characters within it (and then gently, inexorably, wrapped us up with them).
There’s an aesthetic paradox in this: The play’s open-ended, almost documentary realism is also tightly and rigorously controlled, like a single string pulled taut on which the slightest disturbance or variation registers thunderingly. The play’s tight/loose rhythm and range actually put me in mind of film editing; we always knew where our eyes should be directed, and no action felt superfluous (even the non-action). In short, the symmetry between the playwright’s attention to detail and ours was deeply satisfying.
It also helps, of course, that within this beautifully realized world, Baker’s dialogue and dramaturgy are as crisp, funny, and surprising as ever. And in the sly self-critique of stereotype she gives to Avery—something of a black-nerd stereotype himself—Baker proves again how trickily truthful she can be. But her emotional register also reaches a new level of risk and vulnerability; all the indirection and subtextual longing that infuse The Aliens and Circle Mirror Transformation is here, too, but there are also a few moments of bald honesty and confession in The Flick that rise up strikingly from the play’s anomic baseline.
I’ll object here only to a few quasi-LaBute-ian plot twists that don’t have the force or shock they probably should, and to a long quote from Pulp Fiction that doesn’t quite connect with the moment where it’s placed, even subtextually. (Indeed, there’s an academic paper waiting to be written about how Baker handles Avery’s race, and this Ezekiel 25:17 moment is one of the few in the show where I think her instincts on this subject may have faltered.) But I can think of few better things to say about The Flick than that it affirmed for me, again, the irreducible humanism of the theater, where, as a famous character once said, attention must be paid.