The reputation of Annie Baker as a playwright of Chekhovian sensibilities can often overshadow the fact that she has her own distinct idiom and rhythm that taps into the banality of contemporary life. And, yes, her plays are slow but only in the sense that they are patient, unhurried miniatures. It’s this unassuming style, the very antithesis of showy theatricality, that one can probably blame for the long belated premieres of her work in New Zealand. Luckily, opening on the same night, we have the sudden pleasure of two local premieres happening at the same time: The Aliens in Wellington and The Flick in Dunedin.
With The Flick, Baker replaces the decaying family estates of Uncle Vanya and The Cherry Orchard with a rundown movie theatre. But if Chekhov’s characters are often bound by the past, hers are bound by a distinct lack of future; these burnouts and lost souls are so recognisably us that it hurts. When a character is asked “What do you want to be when you grow up?” He replies simply, “I am grown up.” Humour and pathos are often separated by a fine line, blurring devastatingly funny with simply devastating.
In many ways the play has none of the major calling cards one would expect from a Pulitzer prize-winning drama. The lowkey narrative doesn’t focus on any contemporary issues in any overt way – this isn’t a play about racial injustice or a play about the war on terror. In this tale of movie ushers and projectionisists, drama is reduced to mere moments or glances between characters. Yet race, class and income still contribute to the social landscape her play inhabits. This is America, not an imagined place, where race and class are still the source of chasms between characters in subtle ways.
And these characters are so well inhabited and beautifully drawn. Characters who risk becoming stereotypes on paper transcend their well-worn tropes. Under the direction of Lara Macgregor, the cast have brought their dimensions to life with vivid detail, which is doubly important in the intimate confines of the Allen Hall theatre where every single blink and tic is under scrutiny. Nick Dunbar as the thirtysomething Sam exemplifies the ineffectual masculinity of someone past their prime, someone whose passive-aggressiveness is too easy to laugh at. It’s a performance that could easily be reduced to a bunch of funny mannerisms in a workplace sitcom, but Dunbar resists the obvious temptation. Yes, the character seems like a bit of a joke, but we never forget he’s a human. As Rose, Sam Shannon inhabits the manic pixie dream girl beautifully, bringing a spunky life and energy to the space. She’s a delight to watch as she charms the other characters and in doing so charms us, but also brings the character’s own self-consciousness to the forefront. And finally Avery, played by Timothy Itayi, is wholly believable as the young film buff uncomfortable in his own skin. It’s a performance where the slightest smile takes on deep significance, and every nerve is exposed.
Each performer feels at home in their characters and, more importantly, at home with each other. It’s a delight to watch because Baker’s play is, if anything, about the joys of people-watching. It’s here we can appreciate Baker is a maestro of the inarticulate – about what isn’t said as much as about what is. Between the simple blackouts, showing time passing and the endless cycle of popcorn demanding to be swept away, Baker patiently teaches us how to watch her play. One adjusts one’s expectations to the joys and pleasures of people-watching.
Mark McEntyre’s set captures the dilapidated, cheap movie theatre aesthetic well, though the constraints of the tiny space and modest production are noticeable. It is convincing, but doesn’t transport us effortlessly into the world of the play. A convincing simulacrum, but it’s difficult, amidst the ultra-naturalism of the text, not to long for a more immersive and fully-realised design. This is a production where I am keenly aware of the space and venue, perhaps because The Flick’s setting is as much a character as anything else.
Through Avery’s own obsessions, it’s no surprise The Flick also operates as an ode to the screen. Yet it never coasts on film trivia as character development. Film, cinema, movies, whatever you prefer to call it, is a backdrop. People are the subject. And the imminent demise of 35mm film being replaced by digital (which is now a present reality) becomes a microcosm for inevitable change on a universal scale.
For a play so willing to take it’s time, the final moments feel oddly rushed. Plot unravels quickly and everything is bookended rather neatly. It all seems too symmetrical and formally considered. But it’s a testament to the world created that I am desperate for more, to ride the ellipsis into the sunrise rather than end with the certainty of a full stop. Baker makes it clear that this is simply the end of a chapter rather than the end of the whole story. Characters surprise and disappoint us in ways we least expect. And to the credit of the play, everyone has grown for better or worse by the end (some more jaded and others more hopeful). This makeshift liminal space is victim to change too – subject to the same onslaught of repetition, victim to the wider world and the whims of people we never see. The characters long, but they’re not entirely sure what it is they long for. Joy seems too fleeting. Connections more so. Authenticity seems impossible. And, yet, life is still beautiful in its aching simplicity. A modest masterpiece of theatrical magic.
The Flick plays Allen Hall, Dunedin until 20 July.