Dallas — Playwright Annie Baker has a knack for shedding humorous yet insightful light on the mundane. In The Flick at Undermain Theatre, she turns her sharp focus to young ushers in a rundown movie palace in rural Massachusetts in what ultimately ends up being a masterful deconstruction of Middle American life and a critique of the American Dream.
The play opens with grizzled veteran Sam (Alex Organ) showing newbie Avery (Jared Wilson) the ropes of cleaning the theater. Their banter is innocent and funny enough—that kind of artificially casualness of new acquaintances. Soon, projectionist Rose (Mikaela Krantz) is introduced. There is clear tension between Sam and Rose, which only escalates with Rose’s interest in Avery. All of which builds into a kind of not-quite love triangle that isn’t as important as the different glimpses we get of American life in each of the three characters’ backgrounds, which are slowly revealed throughout the course of the show.
Baker has a gift for rich subtext, which is made starker by her choice to place the action in such a boring milieu. This is exactly what a lot of people in their early 20’s, and sometimes as in Sam’s case, into their 30’s, do. They get minimum wage jobs to try and pay down debts and make ends meet until they figure out something else. But, that’s not typically fodder for a Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Baker tells extraordinarily deep and interesting stories amid a simple setting. She’s one of the brightest of contemporary American playwrights.
That said, it’s a formula that’d be easy to screw up. There is a possibility of getting lost in the mundanity and never getting the material to rise to the level it’s written at.
Of course that’s not a problem for the talented Undermain team. Director Blake Hackler has assembled a superb cast, but what really stands out is his commitment to letting the play soak in. There are a lot of long moments with no dialogue, sometimes with workaday tasks like sweeping and mopping. Some are quite awkward. It takes real dedication to hold on and let those moments happen, especially in a show that is more comedy than drama and where rapid delivery is typically necessary. The pacing here is absolute perfection. The dialogue is swift when necessary and eerily silent when called for. Getting that right is a major key to getting the show right.
To that end, the cast is definitely up to the challenge. Organ embodies the angst of someone aging out of young adulthood still looking for direction, but unable to find any. His silence is deafening at times. To watch everything he’s thinking happen only on his face is awesome and heartbreaking all at the same time.
Krantz comes from a similar origin point, but in a completely different way. She shares Sam’s early blasé attitude, but it develops and changes more drastically and out loud as she tries to cling to her carefree ways in the face of some pretty heavy stuff coming at her from her coworkers. The moment of her transition starts funny and ends in the height of discomfort—and she nails that moment.
Reserved restraint is the order of the day for Wilson’s nerdy Avery. The youngest and most promising of the bunch, he hasn’t come to work at the theater out of necessity but rather because he loves movies. He’s a purist superfan of cinema. But lurking beneath the privileged fanboy—like in so many seemingly happy suburban stories—is a darker side that he lets trickle out little by little throughout the play, which both humanizes him and makes his movie obsession a little stranger and uncomfortable than it might have already been. And in that role, Wilson turns into a completely different person by the play’s end. He even looks different in the final scene simply by how he conducts himself. It’s an understated performance that really sneaks up on you. Early on, he seems to be the most boring character and pales in the big personalities of Sam and Rose. But, he ends up becoming fascinating, and that’s a testament to Baker’s writing and Wilson’s performance.
Robert Winn’s set is spot on. The nearly three-hour play takes place in one setting: the interior of movie theater, with seats, aisles and a projection booth at the back. Between scenes an actual film camera in the projection room cranks up and plays scenes. The audience, sitting where the screen would be, can’t tell what’s playing, but that’s not the point. (As per Baker’s stage directions, the music at the beginning is from Bernard Hermann’s score to The Naked and the Dead, and at the end it’s from Truffault’s Jules and Jim, but those are not the films being shown). By placing the audience in the screen looking out it creates an interesting perspective shift—from the spectacle of the movies we watch to the simple lives opposite.
At one point in the play Avery argues that there hasn’t been a great American film in the last 10 years. In his opinion, the last great American film was 1994’s Pulp Fiction. So really, it’d be more like 20 years. Thankfully the American theater has no such problem, as this play is great—and so is this production.