The unruly brain and bad habits of a writer, artist, and grilled cheese sandwich-enthusiast.
“Wasn’t it George Bernard Shaw who tried that noble experiment in one of his early plays? He tried to discover how long the first act could run, based upon the endurance of the human bladder. I wish I could recall his conclusions.”
– Alfred Hitchcock, interviewed in The Oregonian (1963)
I’m trying to recall the last time I felt so disconnected from a show with which I had so much in common with the protagonist. Live Avery (Justin Howard), I, too, had my first job working as a cinema usher, though I was 16 rather than 20. Like him, I was a bit obsessed with the film Pulp Fiction, which was the first film I paid to see multiple times on the big screen. Like him, me and my co-workers would play “Six Degrees” to wile away the hours (Pro Tip: you can connect Chaplin to anyone – I mean anyone – through his daughter Geraldine, who appeared in his film Limelight). And, like Avery, I had an encounter with suicide that resulted in therapy (though it wasn’t my suicide attempt and forcing me into therapy was more of a power play… long story).
Perhaps it’s because I understand Avery so much that I feel no connection to his story. I understand that not every experience is identical, but as a Black kid who’s worked in three different cinemas with mostly-White co-workers, Annie Baker gets so much wrong that one would think she’s doing it on purpose. I doubt it. More likely, she wanted to make a statement on so many things – race, class, technological evolution in art – but didn’t know enough about them to say anything substantive. The result is a rambling mess that goes on for three interminable hours – just like the last Annie Baker show I saw.
Now, before I go any further, it’s only right that I mention the real star of this production: set designer Randy Wong-Westbrooke. Whereas the script fumbles a great many details and characterizations, Wong-Westbrooke’s cinema set is meticulous. From the leftover popcorn and candy wrappers to the muted brown wall curtains and sconces to the water-stained ceiling and posters visible in the projection booth, every detail is fussed upon to perfection. One audience member – I suspect, a newcomer to Shotgun – said the primary red cinema seats appeared more comfortable than the Ashby pews. Indeed, I was surprised that Shotgun didn’t experiment with the seating the way they did for last year’s Arcadia (much the way SF Playhouse does in their current run of Cabaret). It reminded me of the story of Juno’s office in Beetlejuice. In any case, the set stands as conclusive proof that Randy Wong-Westbrooke is one of the best set designers in the game.
The “story”, such as it is, revolves around three employees of The Flick, a rundown single-screen celluloid movie house in Worchester, Mass. This includes long-time usher Sam (a White man in his 30s, played by Chris Ginesi), projectionist Rose (a slightly younger White woman, played Ari Rampy in the show’s best performance), and new-hire Avery, who suspects that their unseen boss, Steve, didn’t want to hire a Black kid. No one in our trio is a character, just a series of idiosyncrasies: Avery is a film snob who despises digital and is, by his own words “shit-phobic”; Sam sleepwalks through his job, occasionally breaking to try and flirt with Rose; Rose is a MPDG who stalks the reluctant Avery with all the subtlety of Leatherface chasing a screaming teenager. Avery once tried to kill himself, Sam has a mentally-handicapped brother who’s getting married, Rose smokes weed, dances, and kicks seats when she’s angry.
These aren’t human beings. The closest we ever get to real character development is when Avery calls his therapist to tell of a dream he had in which one is allowed into Heaven based on their film preferences (he subconsciously realizes his favorite film is Honeymoon in Vegas, but still gets in). Other than that, none of the characters’ preferences or vices truly inform who they are – they’re simply a mishmash of likes and dislikes Baker cobbled together before patting herself on the back and saying, “Congratulations! You’re a character I made!”
And when the topics the characters cover isn’t bad enough, Baker piles it on with a tin ear for dialogue and inexplicable actions. Characters stop their stream-of-consciousness monologues to let their scene partners go on unnecessary rants. They use dodgy logic that comes off less as myopia and more like arrested development (which is saying something in a show that alludes to a mentally handicapped character). And the one overtly sexual scene comes off more like a sex crime.
And these are our characters. This play was given a Pulitzer.
Not having read the text, I’m not quite sure how much of the show’s bloated running time can be attributed to Baker’s poor writing and how much to Jon Tracy’s direction. Several moments are inexplicably drawn out by having characters stopping and staring, as if those were written beats that could not be deviated from. Having seen Baker’s John, I can believe she would stretch her thin premise to a ridiculous length with an excess of fluff. The Flick is a one-act story (45 min. at most) that’s been pulled to three hours like a bad facelift.
Still, it is a Shotgun show, so no matter what failing lie in the text, the company will pull out all the stops for the tech. Having already gushed about Randy Wong-Westbrooke’s set, I can mention that their colleagues are equally up to the task of upholding Shotgun’s high standards. For a film buff like myself, Kris Barrera’s sound and video montages acted as a personal trivia game for me, including sounds and clips from Rocky, Kill Bill, Psycho, and Taxi Driver. As usual, lighting designer Kurt Landisman’s work is best in subtle moments, such as transition that darken the floor and turn the booth blue or purple. The reason I hate full blackout scene transitions (other than how they can be mistaken for “End of Acts”) is because subtle shifts like those Landisman employs are much more effective. Nikki Anderson-Joy’s costumes (assisted by Victoria Mortimer) are equally spot-on. I can say from experience that no cinema usher has ever enjoyed their uniform. Anderson-Joy and Mortimer capture, for lack of a better term, the “itchiness” of those damn suits, and how badly employees would love to burn them to ashes.
Devon LaBelle’s props are near-perfect. I’d say the larger push-broom would have bristles like those of the smaller ones, but it isn’t a scene-killer for me. If anything, I’d love to know what auction she found the 35mm projector at. And as much as I hated the “sex” scene and the rape-y stench around it, I appreciate knowing intimacy choreographer Elena Wright was on set to keep the performers safe.
At one point, the snobby Avery refuses to acknowledge The Lord of the Rings trilogy as anything special. As it happens, the length of this ridiculous play made me think of what Tolkien wrote for Bilbo in the The Fellowship of the Ring: “I feel thin… sort of stretched. Like butter scraped over too much bread.” The Flick continues Annie Baker’s tradition of commenting on the world from a distance. In a way, she’s like Independence Day director Roland Emmerich: so disconnected from “the plebes” that she can only portray them by reducing them to stereotypes and quirks. The play pretends to cover the topics of the celluloid-to-digital transition, social mobility, and racial stereotyping, but it fluctuates between having nothing to say and simply repeating what others have already said better. The final steps of the film-to-digital transition had been taken half-a-decade before this play was written – it might as well make a new rant about black-and-white vs. color film.
Technically pleasing as the show may be, it’s really just another play by a privileged White girl who recently caught wind of an old debate and said to herself, “It really makes you think.” The world needs more of those about as much as it needs another shitty Matrix sequel. Oh, wait…
The Flick is scheduled to run until the 22nd of September (NOTE: the run has now been extended to the 6th of October) at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley.
The show runs roughly 3 hours with one 15-min. intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.
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