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Rousuck's Review: "The Flick" at Arlington's Signature Theatre

Christopher Mueller

"Film is a series of photographs separated by split-seconds of darkness.” That’s how an employee at a movie theater explains good old-fashioned celluloid film in the play,The Flick.It’s a description that also fits the structure of this 2014 Pulitzer Prize winner, receiving a poignant area premiere at Arlington’s SignatureTheatre.

Playwright Annie Baker has constructed The Flick as a series of mostly brief scenes, separated by blackouts. More intriguingly, when we take our seats, we’re facing several rows of movie seats. The projection booth is above and behind those seats. This means we are theoretically sitting behind the screen. If there were a movie playing, presumably we’d be in it. 

When the principal characters – three employees of this dilapidated movie house – look at the screen, they’re looking at us, and we, of course, are looking at them.

Designer James Kronzer’s seedy set feels as real as the spilled popcorn the ushers are forever sweeping off the floor.

But The Flick isn’t just a slice of verisimilitude. It’s an examination of what we truly value, of isolation and friendship, the workplace and the class system, and, on the most basic level, the difference between right and wrong.

That’s a lot of thematic heft -- even for a play that runs more than three hours. But playwright Baker adroitly works depth into this seemingly mundane drama. And, you’re always fully engaged in the uncertain futures of “The Flick’s” three struggling, small-town employees.

In solid dramatic tradition, the action revolves around a newcomer who upsets the order of things. The play begins on Avery’s first day, as Sam -- the employee with the most seniority -- shows him the ropes.

ThaddeusMcCants portrays Avery as initially terrified as well as disgusted by the clean-up tasks the ushers perform between showings. McCants overdoes the anxiety of this character, who turns out to be practically a film savant.

Avery’s a fierce advocate of celluloid over digital. He’s memorized “Pulp Fiction,” and he’s adamant that there hasn’t been a great American movie since. Or so he insists to co-worker Sam, played by Evan Casey as the soul of all that is ordinary.

Avery doesn’t quite fit in. He’s especially uncomfortable with certain financial arrangements Sam has made with the projectionist -- a green-haired, nose-pierced young woman named Rose.

Laura C. Harris’ Rose is a would-be free spirit with issues of her own. One of them, according to Avery, is that she’s not a movie fan.

Playwright Baker takes her time in The Flick -- as the pauses in Rose’s speech suggest. Everything on stage takes its time. But Baker’s script and Joe Calarco’s knowing direction never flag.

As we learn about these characters, we also learn about a society in which self-sufficiency takes on Darwinian proportions and new technology is almost always valued over old.

With amusing irony, Annie Baker conveys this in a highly theatrical play about a medium – film -- that cynics once feared would replace live theater.

Avery may believe the quality of American movies have declined in the last decade. The Flick is a recent indication that the same cannot be said of theater.

The Flick continues at Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA, through April 24. 

J. Wynn Rousuck has been reviewing theater for WYPR's Midday (and previously, Maryland Morning) since 2007. Prior to that, she was the theater critic of The Baltimore Sun, where she reviewed more than 3,000 plays over the course of 23 years.