Three Degrees of Separation in The Flick

Annie Baker’s play succeeds at recreating the monotony of sweeping up other people’s fallen popcorn — at Shotgun Players through Sept. 22.

Justin Howard, Avery; Chris Ginesi, Sam; Ari Rampy, Rose (Ben Krantz Studio)

Sam (Chris Ginesi) and Avery (Justin Howard) work at The Flick, an independent movie house in suburban Massachusetts. They spend most of their time on stage either sweeping popcorn up or mopping down the sticky aisle floors. In this lifeless production of Annie Baker’s The Flick, the director, Jon Tracy, is determined to recreate the monotonous verisimilitude of a service industry job. By evoking the rhythms of this particular working class limbo, Tracy’s interpretation of the play relies on making the same repetitive point for three long hours. It’s a joyless exercise that, having had the exact same job myself, omits any sense of fun that made the work something other than mind-numbing drudgery. 

Covered in a red cloth that’s stained and fading, several rows of actual movie seats face the audience. Against the back wall, two windows reveal a projection room on an upper floor where Rose (Ari Rampy), a third employee, spends most of her time. Being a projectionist is the most coveted job in their tiny ecosystem. Sam, who happens to be in love with Rose, wants her to train him. Sam’s in his 30s and has worked at the theater for a number of years. Rose tells Avery that Sam moved in with his parents after he broke up with his girlfriend. What Baker leaves unsaid in Sam’s monologues is his inability to imagine something more or different for himself. He looks hypnotized by his routine and comfortable with his limited ambitions. The great trauma of his life is the lack of any viable opportunity for advancement.      

After each showing of the movie, the sound and video designer, Kris Barrera, projects the end credits as a series of flickering lights and shadows against the back wall. Avery then peers through the theater door to see if it’s clear to start cleaning up. He’s new on the job and learning the ropes from Sam. As they each tend to their side of the aisle, an uneasy friendship develops between them. Baker allows their intimacy to grow in tentatively delivered confessions. The playwright captures the way that people kill time in jobs like these by telling each other secrets they might otherwise withhold.  

What didn’t look or feel right was the duration of each elongated clean-up scene. Picking up candy wrappers, soda cups and sweeping up popcorn was the least interesting task during every shift. Everyone I knew zoomed down the aisles as quickly as possible and then returned to the lobby to prep the refreshment stand for the next show, tally the tickets or gab somewhere out of the public eye. Only after the last showing did we spend any extended amount of time in the theater itself. More often than not, we all just wanted to go home.  

But The Flick is a second home for Sam and Rose, and for the new hire Avery. All three employees are personally adrift. The undemanding, low-pressure nature of the job is a comforting distraction from their own worries. Avery’s taken a semester off from college to regroup after his parents’ divorce. He connects with Sam and Rose because they’re all on the verge of figuring something new about themselves. But to do so means they have to be vulnerable and trusting with each other. 

The Flick’s great accomplishment, like Lynn Nottage’s Sweat or Dominique Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew, is that it makes an underclass visible. Rather than examining overly familiar tropes about familial dysfunction, there’s a built-in drama in watching characters who live paycheck to paycheck. Their survival depends upon whether or not they’ll keep their jobs. As they bicker, hurt each other’s feelings and struggle to connect, these co-workers — and former strangers — temporarily form a community. Baker never loses sight of how frustrating it can be to clean up other people’s trash, but where’s the background noise of moviegoers and managers? There’s a great rush before every show begins and that should have been portrayed on stage with more vigor and snap. Here the language of film is all arthouse languor and despair.  

The Flick, through Sept. 22, at Shotgun Players, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. $7–$37; 510-841-6500 or shotgunplayers.org

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