playing at the movies

wilbury theatre group’s the flick at the cable car cinema

Annie Baker’s play The Flick, which won her the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2014, is being performed on-site at the Cable Car Cinema through March 25 by the Wilbury Theatre Group. The strengths of this condensed version of the play (the 2015 Off-Broadway revival ran for three hours and 10 minutes; this version runs two-and-a-half hours) are remarkably evident in this production, directed by Wendy Overy; and its weaknesses, like its tendency to rely on popular culture for some of its more powerful emotional beats, are still present but easy to pass over. In the face of the last five years of depressing cultural developments, not least of which include Baker’s most recent play, the annoying The Antipodes, Overly’s deft presentation of the playwright’s gorgeous characterization is especially vibrant.

The premise—three movie theater employees in run-down central Massachusetts are gradually carved into troughs of loneliness, detailed exquisitely by Baker. Avery (Ronald Lewis), a 20-year-old film buff, struggles with paralyzing depression and lack of fulfillment; 35-year-old Sam (the terrific Dave Rabinow) lacks the agency or opportunity to change his life; and 20-something Rose (Anna Basile), trapped by her anger and emotional inadequacy, manages to alienate both of them. (Seth Finkle also shows up in a couple of blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em roles.) These are layered performances, delicate, almost lush in their capacity to invite the audience in. Rabinow, especially, is heartbreaking—at least partially due to Baker’s extraordinary skill in diagramming the male psyche.

The Flick justifies theater, which is thrilling; ironically, the play could never be filmed or adapted to any other medium. But it makes a great argument for art in general, too. Sam and Avery spend a good deal of time talking about movies (including rounds and rounds of a variation on Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon), but the conversation feels just as legitimate as anything else in the play. The play is about how connections form—however they form. Baker writes fantastically in contemporary vernacular, and that vernacular is informed, inevitably, by the ubiquity of pop culture. It’s a modern play, which is why the on-site location is so apt. In a performance theater, the play’s set—the seats in a movie theater facing the audience—has the potential to take the audience out of the action. That’s considerably less of an issue when Sam and Avery are actually sweeping popcorn out from under your feet.

And they do sweep, not quite endlessly (thanks to those reductions) but certainly long-windedly. Popcorn, soda, and a single New Balance shoe (don’t ask) are swept cleanly away and deposited in garbage bags, all alongside the action. There is something transporting about the very surroundings of a theater space being transformed in order to allow an audience into it. On the night I saw The Flick, the show began at eight, and the last film of the night had ended at seven-thirty. The Wilbury crew had less than a half an hour to dash into the theater and set up the seats and risers for the waiting crowd. No one can deny that’s romantic, and I’d say it’s pretty Baker-esque.

Overly’s The Flick occupies emotional space, which is not always the case with productions of contemporary theater, and deserves recognition. But it’s more the idea of the play than the content itself that resonates here. The Flick is a tremendously human work, and a humanistic one too, and Overly’s production recognizes and embraces that, which is the ultimate endorsement. The question as to whether The Flick is a historically important work is as of yet open, but it has an empathy for its characters that is colossally moving, and Wilbury gets that right.