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I’ve had a copy of Annie Baker’s 2011 play The Flick sitting on my bookshelf for about half a year, but when I heard that the REP would be producing this play as part of their season, I decided to hold off reading it so that I could experience it first on stage rather than on the page.

I’m so glad I did. The REP’s production of Baker’s keenly observed play about three underpaid workers at a run-down single-screen movie house swept me off guard from its very first moment, when the barely articulate Sam explains the nature of the task at hand – sweeping up after the feature – to his new co-worker Avery with hypernaturalistic shorthand:

“We call this the walkthrough? …. Pretty simple. … You just … uh…”

That line is followed by a long silence in which the two men awkwardly begin to clean the floors of the theater between the rows of seats. And while that may not sound like a very riveting opening to a play, it is in fact totally captivating. For it’s as if we, the audience, are behind the projection screen, looking out from “movie world” into the bank of seats in the “real world,” eavesdropping in on the private, casual, and nondescript conversations of people who think they are unobserved.

Baker’s hyperrealistic dialogue and action – peppered with long pauses in which the characters, having nothing to say to each other, say nothing – offers a perceptive glimpse into the lives of three precisely imagined wage slaves in the service economy. It’s difficult to pinpoint, in a “this is the story” kind of way, what The Flick is “about,” because there’s no strong central conflict; rather, The Flick is a play that puts under scrutiny characters who are, among other things, mainly determinedly engaged in conflict avoidance. And under Robert A. Miller’s sensitive direction, the terrific ensemble of the REP production brings those characters brilliantly to life.

The Flick

L to R: John Steffenauer, Sarah Silk, Saladin White II. Photo: Jeff Swensen.

Sam is a thirty-five year old white dude who is still living in his parents’ attic; he’s the type who would have barely graduated high school and then spent his twenties partying to heavy metal while not finishing community college. When Avery later asks him what he wants to be when he grows up, he takes a longish pause before pointing out “I am grown up … that’s like the most depressing thing anyone’s ever said to me.” Sam’s quiet desperation is masterfully captured by actor John Steffenauer, who physicalizes the role with a guarded mask of a face, a choked, croaking voice and the slump-shouldered, half-awake, shuffly walk of a person who’s molded his body to the confines of his dead-end job. Sam seems slow of both thought and speech – not stupid, necessarily, just not quick with words – and Steffenauer fills the character’s hesitancy with a groping yearning that is both touching and comic.

Steffenauer’s powerful and understated performance is counterbalanced by Saladin White II as Avery, the new hire, and Sarah Silk as Rose, the projectionist. Like Steffenauer, both White and Silk underplay, giving the script’s pauses and hesitations their full due and allowing the stillness between lines to dampen “actorly” affect. White’s Avery is physically verklemmt, but he’s the most verbally ept of the group; son of a professor of semiotics and linguistics, Avery’s a movie buff with an aficionado’s capacious memory, and White modulates skillfully between Avery’s cocky confidence when the subject is film-related, and his stuttering insecurity when it comes to normal social interactions. Silk is fabulous as Rose, playing her with a vivacious insouciance that feels both studied and careless: Rose is a gal who’s always a little “on,” but Silk is firmly in the hypernaturalistic performance style of the play even as she plays with and “performs” for Sam and Avery.

The Flick 2

Sarah Silk and Saladin White II. Photo: Jeff Swensen.

The question of realness and performance is one that the play slyly dances around; at one point Avery tells Rose that his depression stems from his belief that “everyone is acting out some like stereotype” and later Rose accuses Sam of “performing,” both of which jar us into remembering that these are actors acting in front of us, even though, with all the pauses and half lines and inarticulate thoughts, it kind of feels like we are watching “real people.” You might think for a moment that this is a kind of cinematic performance transplanted to the stage, but then Sam quotes a few clichéd movie lines and calls attention to the artifice of cinema as well. And while the dialogue and acting style are ultra-quotidian, the play draws on all sorts of theatrical conventions – blackouts, recorded music, scene changes, etc – that keep it from seeming either “real” or “cinematic.” Baker’s play is at once compellingly realistic and provocatively theatrical.

Scene designer Dick Block has filled the small space of the studio theater with a very credible reproduction of a movie theater that hasn’t seen better days in a really long time. Small details in the set – like the handful of missing tiles on the mosaic panels, and the grime on the upstage walls – make all the difference. Details are also eloquent in Michael Montgomery’s costumes; indeed, you might glean practically everything you need to know about the three characters from their hair alone (Sam has a near-permanent case of hat head, Avery wears his hair cropped control-freak neat, and Rose, the most uninhibited of the bunch, sports a wild and unruly tangle of long dark curls dyed bright green on the ends). Sound designer Steve Shapiro threads scenes together with themes from old films, underscoring the disconnect and disjuncture between the cinematic “real” (which so often provides life with a soundtrack) and the theatrical “real” of the play’s many silences and pauses.

The Flick is one of those rare works that manages to be hilariously funny even as it’s breaking your heart. Director Miller lets the play unfold with a pace and mood that allows both its comedy and tenderness to flower; often, one or the other of these blooms in the awkward silences that settle between characters unsure about what to say next. The characters’ uncertain, cautious, and at times passive-aggressive hesitation to engage each other captures a truth about the modern social contract; its optimistic ending – dare I say its Hollywood happy ending? – indulges a sweet hope that dead-ends are not always what they seem.