You should see GSC’s The Flick, but be warned that the drama works in spurts and starts
The Flick, by Annie Baker. Directed by Bridget Kathleen O’Leary. Presented by Gloucester Stage Company, Gorton Theatre, 267 East Main Street, Gloucester, MA, through September 12.
By Robert Israel
Playwright Annie Baker is having a miracle year. The revived production of her script The Flick is wowing them in New York City (Arts Fuse review) and, concurrently, it is being produced at repertory companies around the country, including at Gloucester Stage. That’s a significant sea change: when the play premiered in 2013 a significant portion of the audience headed off to the exit long before the final curtain. The elements that had them scrambling for the nearest doors — the terse dialog, the long, reflective pauses, the over three-hour running time — is now, a couple of years later, keeping them in the seats. Theatergoers want them some Annie Baker. Could the newfound patience have something to do with the slew of trophies that been showered upon the script, including last year’s Pulitzer Prize for drama?
Very possibly: the popularity of plays is often at the mercy of the vagaries of fickle audience members, who scan banner ads for endorsements before laying down their greenbacks for tickets. It’s all about the buzz. When whispers become shouts, audiences rally.
Bottom line: despite the hype, you should see it. For all its flaws, and for the uneven staging it is being given at Gloucester Stage, The Flick is substantive, probing, and darkly comedic. The production features some fine performances by a talented cast, most notably by Nael Nacer, who plays a down-on-his-luck janitor named Sam with bittersweet intensity (more about him in a bit).
Set in rundown movie house in an unnamed town in central Massachusetts, three characters — a female projectionist Rose (Melissa Jesser), and two janitors, white Sam (Nael Nacer) and African-American Avery (Marc Pierre) — share stories, dashed hopes, and candid retellings of disturbed personal histories. There’s a lot here about failed romances and lives gone adrift. The emptied movie house becomes a bit like a confessional: soda pop instead of holy water, popcorn instead of confessional wafers.
These confessions are punctuated by long pauses as the characters struggle to articulate their pain and dreams. The pauses in the script are there to suggest the characters’ primal hesitations, their inability to put their deepest feelings into words. They also give us opportunities to reflect on what we have heard (or to wonder why something has been kept secret). Yes, there is a psychological method behind Baker’s madness, but that doesn’t mean that Baker’s pauses don’t become just plain annoying. Harold Pinter, who famously inserted pauses in his menacing plays, used the emptiness to unnerve us. And he had his pauses delivered by characters who any moment might either pummel one other with vitriol or, worse, fisticuffs. There was an urgent tension to his silences, a sense of tamped-down hostility,
In the GSC production, directed by Bridget Kathleen O’Leary, Baker’s laid-back brand of urgency is sometimes there — and sometimes it isn’t. The script is so weighted down with pesky silent gaps that the cast members struggle to keep the dramatic action moving along rather than stalling out.
Veteran actor Nael Nacer (who has not only shaved his head for the role but topped his dome with a Boston Red Sox cap), rises to the challenge with aplomb. He captivates with sad-eyed stares that turn on a dime from teary to vacant. Lanky, alternately pathetic and triumphant, he personifies the new “lost generation” that Baker insists we pay attention to: clinging to a dead-end job, still living at home with mommy and daddy, struggling with misplaced emotions.
Alas, Nacer is not matched by newcomer Marc Pierre, who is posed with the task of playing Avery, a young man whose obsessive love of movie memorabilia masks his serious mental health issues. Pierre has moments of success with the role, but he fails to create the necessary emotional connections. The character must earn our empathy, taking command when he sits alone and vulnerable on stage, talking via cell phone to his therapist.
As Rose, Melissa Jesser is arresting, especially when she explodes into a hilariously randy dance, accompanied by rap artist Missy Elliott’s words piped onto the loudspeakers: “I’d like to get to know ya/ so I could show ya/ put the pussy on ya like I told ya/ Gimme all your numbers so I could phone ya/ Your girl actin’ stank then call me over/Not on the bed, lay me on your sofa.”
Courtney Nelson’s set is wonderful, an arrangement that includes faded seats that make up the auditorium and a projection booth above that shines unseen images on us. Russ Swift’s lighting is inspired and deserves praise for effectively pulling us into the chiaroscuro of the movie house.
You should see GSC’s The Flick, but be warned that the drama works in spurts and starts — parts outshine the whole. Despite all the critical accolades, Baker should think about trimming some of the pauses. The slow-moving script desperately needs more physical, edgy encounters, dialogue exchanges that are electric and revelatory. Still, the playwright provides us with valuable insights into who we are now, and who we are becoming. And that is compelling enough of a reward to make it worth taking in The Flick.
Robert Israel writes about theater, travel and the arts, and is a member of Independent Reviewers of New England (IRNE). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org