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Review: Annie Baker’s moving ‘The Flick’ soars high in its Toronto debut (Includes first-hand account)

Sure, film lovers will get a lot out of Baker’s 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, which opened on Thursday and is making its Toronto debut through Outside the March. The three young characters – who work at the title Massachusetts second-run house – are bursting with trivia and references, name-dropping everything from Goodfellas to Avatar, even Honeymoon in Vegas. Audio cues include excerpts from Sunset Boulevard and The Wild Bunch. The score from the François Truffaut ménage-à-trois classic Jules and Jim is a recurring theme, hinting at potential romantic complications between the two dudes and one woman onstage.
But The Flick holds your attention for three hours because of these three lost people, and through Baker’s realistic, subtle dialogue. Director Mitchell Cushman (who also helmed the Coal Mine’s excellent production of Baker’s The Aliens in 2017) never rushes the pacing, letting us get to know this trio by watching them work, chat, argue, and endure long, uncomfortable pauses full of meaning. It’s a moving and funny depiction of Millennial angst and arrested development.
The trio: Sam (Colin Doyle), a jaded, thirtysomething veteran employee at the Flick, who still lives with his parents; Rose (Amy Keating), the projectionist, an outgoing, tomboyish free spirit who loves to dance; and the newbee, Avery (Durae McFarlane), an awkward, neurotic kid who’s just using the job for extra cash while he readies for college. Avery is a walking encyclopedia of movie lore (and a bit of a film snob) who has memorized long dialogue passages from Pulp Fiction and can connect virtually any two stars though the six-degrees game. “That’s, like, almost like a disability,” Sam says in awe about Avery’s memory gifts.
These are three ordinary young Americans, but they come alive through a real, honest, hyper-colloquial style of dialogue that has become Baker’s trademark, peppered with “like” and “whatever” and long pauses that sometimes say more than the words do. Baker and Cushman take their time to immerse you into these characters’ mundane world, showing them performing their jobs, sweeping popcorn or running a projector behind a window. By the time you learn their true feelings about each other, it’s as if you’ve already gotten to know them simply by working by their side.

Much of the play’s effect comes through Nick Blais’ set and lighting design. Crow’s Theatre has spared no expense or effort in dressing itself up as an old-fashioned movie house, with a lobby remodeled by Anahita Denbonehie as cinema entrance, selling popcorn and other snacks. The stage itself continues the illusion with a set that convincingly resembles an old movie-theatre audience section, with rows of seats, trash cans at the back and alternating movie posters outside the exit doors upstage. The play’s audience is located beyond where the movie screen would be – as if we’re looking back on ourselves as viewers through a mirror.
A spotlight above the stage acts as the movie projector, marking scene transitions by shining in the dark as familiar movie music or dialogue plays. The effect of these transitions is a sharp, shattering contrast between the glamour and fantasy of the movie world, and the dull reality of these young employees’ daily lives. You can easily see and feel how these characters get seduced by the magic of the former world – and why they have trouble dealing with real-life social interaction after the lights come up. (When Rose makes a pass at Avery and gets no response, he confesses he’d rather be watching a movie.)
The Flick is a play full of understated sadness and melancholy, as it’s such an accurate depiction of a few generations that can’t make any headway in a failing American economy that offers nothing for them. At one point, Avery asks Sam what he wants to be when he grows up, and Sam, who is grown up, calls the question “one of the most depressing things anyone’s ever said to me.” But Baker, Cushman and the cast also find deep humour in these stunted lives, and Keating scores as the life force of this group – whether she’s owning the stage with a long solo dance performance or just bouncing up and down with energy during dialogue scenes. McFarlane is believably stiff and nervous as Avery, who grows into maturity and confidence over the course of the play (the character is superficially reminiscent of Evan in The Aliens). And Doyle fills Sam with a lot of layers – bitter, despairing, ashamed, but also with moments of compassion.
Every generation has a handful of artists that capture its voice with dead accuracy. Annie Baker understands the dreams and fears of her age better than almost anybody writing today – and she knows that the perfect metaphor for her generation’s denied expectations is a sad, empty movie house long after the credits have rolled.
The Flick runs at Toronto’s Crow’s Theatre until November 3.

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