One of Annie Baker’s many strengths is breaking theatrical convention, which she does in quite a few ways in The Flick. The combination of an unlikely set of characters and an unexpected (and unassuming) setting creates a fascinating study about how we grasp for meaning when the world around is rapidly transforming. Each of the characters in The Flick resist both the physical changes in their context (the movie theatre changing hands, the switch from reel to digital to view movies in the theatre), and its parallel, their interpersonal changes and growth. Baker upends the type of characters that are usually dealt with in mainstream theatre by giving voices to Sam, Avery, and Rose, who are unlikely main characters but whose psychologies and stories are complex and compelling. Baker’s characters are so truthful that after the performance, all of us who attended together left the theatre commenting on how we each knew everyone in the show (this was also a testament to the amazing acting). We had worked with Sam, went to college with Avery, and went out with Rose. These were characters who were poor, working class, living in an economically and emotionally depressed city, and they are living their lives in the best way they know how: by going to work every day so that they can survive. It is also notable that the cast is diverse; so much conversation is happening in the theatre world about diversifying stages and giving voices to underrepresented communities, and Baker responds by including a character whose identity as a black male is not an accidental plot point or a simple nod to color blind casting, but a critical aspect of the character’s journey and growth. And to add to his complexity, his ethnicity puts him in a precarious situation with his employer, and despite that, he holds considerable privilege over Sam and Rose because he doesn’t rely on the job to live; in fact, Avery is quite well off because his father teaches at a University. Putting these multifaceted characters on a stage, who outside of this play would be considered simple and not worthy of the plot of a play, is subversive and political because it says that everyone, regardless off and especially because of their situation, deserves to have their story told.
In addition to radicalizing the characters, Baker challenges our notions of what a well-made play should look like. At first glance, this play does not deal with life or death situations. It was remarkable how low the stakes seemed at the beginning of the show: cleaning the movie theatre after all the patrons have left. By the climax, when Sam and Rose let Avery take the fall for their indiscretions, the stakes are life or death; Sam will lose his job which is the one job he has been able to keep, and the fact that he has not been able to achieve any upward mobility in the theatre like Rose has indicates that Sam wouldn’t be able to get a job elsewhere. In the same way that Annie Baker seamlessly weaves in thematic issues such as racism into Avery’s dealings with his boss, she inserts critiques of education, both the limited accessibility to it and its resulting debt bondage, in a way that feels authentic and unforced. Baker’s hyperrealism allows her to subversively deal with relevant social issues; many may consider hyperrealism to be boring and too “slice of life”, but its power lies in its ability to strike a chord with the very real, urgent struggles that ordinary people have to deal with every day.
I was left with one reservation: its length. I know that one of Annie Baker’s signatures as a playwright is her use of silence as a tool for exploring character, but in a play that was well over three hours long, I had to wonder if audiences who were not familiar with her work would have had the energy to focus on the silence for so long during the play. For those of us who are familiar with her unique mode of writing, since we know what to expect, we came in prepared. Sitting through over four hours of Einstein on the Beach was bearable only because I knew that to appreciate the work, I had to agree to and accept the fact that it was going to be long, and its value lay in its minimalist repetition. Even if someone knew that the play would be over three hours long, the amount silence in the play could be jarring for non-theatre goers. That being said, this play’s strength is in where it breaks theatrical convention, and most of the time, audiences can and will surprise us with their ability to connect with a piece, even if it doesn’t follow mainstream expectations.