THREE LOSERS – A slacker projectionist (Louisa Kraus as Rose) and two depressed cinema attendants (Jaygann Ayeh as Avery and Matthew Maher as Sam) – slowly reveal themselves to each other in a series of vignettes set in the empty (and deliciously realized) auditorium of a cinema, The Flick. Their conversations are halting, often stilted, uncertain; and revelations of character, of their pasts and hopes for the future are teased out in this often hilarious, densely layered, absolutely absorbing play (It kept me awake for three hours…that’s saying something)
At its heart, The Flick, Annie Baker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, directed for the stage by Sam Gold, is about the desire for what seems almost unattainable: self-awareness…imagined as a route to connecting better and building relationships.
In the play’s microcosm, its people – all three – circle each other without knowing really how to connect. Because they’re so clumsy with the signals they send…with the way they project themselves, the only projection they can all be sure of is the one on the screen (In a nice touch, Avery’s father is a professor of semiotics – the study of signs and signals)
The immediate answer to the existential question Avery asks Sam near the beginning of the play, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” is: projectionist. The flickering light of the projector; the discussion of how film – celluloid or digital – is best projected (which is the more honest projection Avery, a cineaste, wonders) is the symbolic center of the play. The reel is in a sense the real. How self-aware do you need to be to project how you want to be seen? Is life just a series of performances?
Because the characters haven’t worked these things out, they project impressions – flickerings – of themselves that are misread and that keep them isolated, disconnected from each other, from the rest of the world…their hopes and any potential for self fulfillment (In the play, the motif of the movie is treated both as an escape from reality and as a bizarre route to connectivity)
The beginnings of breakthrough start with the two men playing the Six Degrees of Separation game. Avery is a master if it: his knowledge of movies and their actors enables him to answer every increasingly obtuse connection put to him by Sam. He can find the connections in fiction…he just doesn’t know how to find them in life. And perhaps for this reason, he tried to kill himself a year ago.
Rose, envied for her lofty status – as projectionist – and self protectively dismissed by Sam (who loves her) as a lesbian, is so self absorbed, her sexual fantasies feature only her. She offers up another game: see what horoscopes have to suggest in terms of who should be connecting with whom…and what insights into each other they offer.
They’re silly games, but they break the ice. As the play unfolds, the characters learn about themselves as they learn about each other (way beyond the cliches of a horoscope). They reveal, often unknowingly, in their desultory conversations, elements of themselves that begin to build bridges across the gulf that separates them. There’s a symbiotic relationship between awareness of self and of others.
The play charts the evolution of the interconnectedness of these three; the – false – beginning of trust and the –real- beginning of their own self-knowledge.
It’s a beginning. But only a beginning. When all three are caught out cheating (happily deceiving themselves, that stealing from the till is really only their –deserved- dinner money) character trumps connectivity. Rose’s self centeredness, and Sam’s blind love for her justify them selling out Avery. Whatever trust had been created disappears.
But no matter, their enhanced self-awareness means that they can all, with greater surety begin to answer the question posed at the beginning, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And perhaps with this, the future for all of them holds some promise; that the potential of self-fulfillment might actually happen.
THE FLICK. By Annie Baker. With Jaygaan Ayeh, Sam Heron, Louisa Krause (movies: Martha, Mercy, May and Young Adult), Matthew Maher (movies: Gone Baby Gone. A Most Violent Year). Directed by Sam Gold. Designer: David Zinn. Lighting Designer: Jane Cox. Sound Designer: Bray Poor. On at the National Theatre