“I’m not performing,” insists Sam, a 35-year-old movie theater usher who lives with his parents.
But how can he be sure? Belonging to a not-uncommon genus of cinephile, Sam (played by a hunched-over Evan Casey, with Kevin Baconesque sharp features scrubbed down and credible Western Mass. accent turned up) has spent more time absorbing mediated emotion alone in the dark than he has experiencing the scary real thing.
His declaration arrives late in Annie Baker’s The Flick, a Pulitzer-winning comic drama that unfolds at the 34-year-old playwright’s usual unhurried clip. As staged by Joe Calarco in Signature Theatre’s cozy Ark space, it commanded my rapt attention for every one of its 195 minutes. I am bound by duty to report not everyone in the audience on press night shared my fervor—certainly not the lady who whispered loudly enough to be heard two rows away, “I feel like I’m in prison!”—and bound by taste to report that that lady is as wrong as she is rude.
It’s a known fact that some audiences find Baker’s unglamorous characters and their occasional silences oppressive. For all his misanthropy, Sam might be the most well-adjusted of The Flick’s central trio. The others are Avery, a newly hired college kid just barely sociable enough to get through the day, and Rose, a projectionist (one big rung up on the ladder from usher, though it’s a pretty short ladder) whose brash confidence masks her own intimacy issues. They all work at (and skim “dinner money” from) The Flick, a single-screen movie house in Worcester, and the last to project films from 35mm celluloid. Its multiplex competitors have all gone digital: cheap, reliable, and soulless, or so purists like Avery insist. Registering his indignation over the fact that The Flick, too, may soon surrender to the Pixel Putsch is about the only cause that can compel the fragile Avery (Thaddeus McCants, giant glasses sliding down his nose because he’s not supposed to be handsome, either) to speak with conviction. Well, other than to argue there hasn’t been a truly great American movie since Pulp Fiction, of course. Sam lodges the same objections to this pronouncement that any dude movie lover with a measure of vanity about his refined tastes would: What about the Coen brothers? What about the not-brothers Anderson, Wes and Paul Thomas? But Sam also wants Avery to get off his high horse and admit he enjoyed Avatar.
These arguments feel as authentic as the ball-busting music debates in High Fidelity did. Like the arrested record-store clerks in that novel and movie, Avery and Sam are both a lot quieter and less articulate when they’re discussing their families and their feelings. Laura C. Harris’ Rose is literally above their popcorn-sweeping discussions, occasionally descending from the projection booth to hang out with them. Chewing on Twizzlers while reading from an astrology book she found in the trash, she mostly ignores Sam but evinces an infatuation with new-guy Avery. As ever with Baker, the stakes are small but feel huge. No, not huge. Life-sized.
Like The Flick’s 2013 premiere in New York and its concurrent production at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, Calarco’s version situates the audience behind the invisible movie screen, staring back at the rows of squeaky flip-up seats where Sam and Avery sweep up popcorn. (The set is by James Kronzer.) The only downside to this physical plant is that because the rake of our seats in the Ark isn’t quite steep enough, your view of the actors will be slightly obscured at one point or another unless you’re very tall or seated in the front row. That’s a more legitimate grievance than the fact that this Sam doesn’t seem 15 years older than this Avery, or that all of the actors in this talented cast are too good-looking for their parts. This isn’t the movies, after all. It’s what the people who clean up your trash talk about once the movie has ended.
4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. $40–$94. (703) 820-9771. sigtheatre.org.