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stage dive

Theater Review: The Flick and The Lying Lesson

The Flick - Playwrights Horizons/Mainstage Theater The Flick, at Playwrights Horizons Mainstage Theater.

The Flick (at Playwrights Horizons through April 7)

Here are some things that do not happen in Annie Baker’s new play The Flick. A confessed love is not reciprocated. An unconfessed love is not reciprocated. (I think; much is mysterious.) A friend does not, in a pinch, help a friend. A sad person does not learn a happy lesson. The audience does not get a moral, or even a subject.

Also missing in action: action. No one does anything generally regarded as theatrical.

So what does happen in The Flick? A lot of sweeping and mopping of the floor of a grotty old movie house near Worcester, Massachusetts. Also the tenderest drama — funny, heartbreaking, sly, and unblinking — now playing at a theater near you.

Hard to say how this happens, but it begins with negation. As if to banish expectations of traditional storytelling, Baker specifies a crazy two-minute blast of bombast — Bernard Herrmann’s opening for The Naked and the Dead — as a kind of overture, while an indecipherable flicker of images is projected from the set’s back wall onto us in the audience. (We are the screen.) The music is so overwrought in its late Romantic writhing that when the first scene finally starts we are grateful for its extreme banality. A 35-year-old guy who works for the cinema simply shows a 20-year-old newbie how to clean the auditorium between shows. The protocol for spilled soda is revealed.

As the “action” continues in this manner, we learn more about Avery (the newbie) and Sam (the old hand) — as well as about Rose, the 24-year-old, green-haired projectionist — than would seem possible in a play with no “here’s who I am” speeches or “here is the conflict” rhubarbs. Instead, we get only the real things these characters might be doing, as if this were a National Geographic documentary about endangered wildlife in its native habitat. The focus, naturally, is on the work at hand: the repeated drudgery of manual labor, sometimes literally ad nauseam. This is accompanied not so much by dialog as chatter — about favorites films, the evils of digital projection, and the splitting of the “dinner money” stolen from receipts. There’s a recurring game of Six Degrees of Film Celebrity: Can you find a route from Michael J. Fox to Britney Spears through a chain of no more than a half-dozen titles? Avery can. And everything you need to know about the way he uses movies as his means of connection to the world, and the way Sam doesn’t, is expressed in the process.

On the other hand, when the characters try to use dialogue in the classical manner, to explain themselves or get something they want, the attempt usually circles like a shot bird and nosedives:

ROSE: Do you think I’m a stereotype?

AVERY: Of like —

ROSE: Of like — whatever. Of like what I am.

AVERY: … Yeah.

ROSE: You do?!

AVERY: Yeah.

            Pause.

ROSE: I guess you’re right.

            Pause.

ROSE: Uch.

            Pause.

ROSE: Wait. Were you being fake? Just now?

This looks unpromising on the page, but one of the things Baker is doing by radically pruning the theater’s stockpile of expressive gambits is to multiply the power of those that remain. When the misbegotten love story, so helpless and bereft of pretty words, eventually emerges, it engages us, not as a movie might with noble sentiment, but rather by forcing us into unexpected empathy, as for a crying baby.

It’s uncanny; rarely has so much feeling been mined from so little content. Something’s lost in the process, of course: brevity. Baker’s technique — developed in earlier plays, like Circle Mirror Transformation and The Aliens — requires lots of time, not much of it devoted to speech. If the script were simply spoken without its many pauses and interludes of silence, the play might be an hour shorter. (As performed, it’s a full three hours.) For some people this will prove an impossible or even presumptuous burden. But for me, the silence, like a halo, makes everything it surrounds more beautiful. Nor is the banality of what survives the silence random or unconsidered. Chekhov’s famous dictum (if a gun appears in Act One it had better shoot by Act Four) is reinvented figuratively: The play is littered with linguistic guns that Baker cocks early and fires late. Nothing’s wasted.

The demands that this new dramaturgy makes on the production are exceptional. As good as the play is, it would be among the most excruciating theater experiences imaginable if the actors weren’t skilled enough to create and suspend complete characterizations across wide expanses of emptiness. (It doesn’t take six degrees to get from Baker to Beckett to Chekhov.) Under the direction of Sam Gold, at the top of his game, are Matthew Maher (Sam), Aaron Clifton Moten (Avery), and Louisa Krause (Rose). They’re perfect. (Alex Hanna, also excellent in two small roles, rounds out the cast.) The painfully dead-on set and costumes (by David Zinn) work the same sad, hyper-realistic vein as the performers; in contrast, the lighting (by Jane Cox) and the sound (by Bray Poor) are almost orgasmically expressive. That makes sense, since they often represent the dream world of the movies, so much more “dramatic” and fulfilling than the real lives Baker allows onstage. Ironically, The Flick may be the best argument anyone has yet made for the continued necessity, and profound uniqueness, of theater.

The Lying Lesson (at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater through March 31)

Bette Davis shows up at a dump of a house in coastal Maine during a summer storm in 1981 — is this the set-up for a joke? At any rate, it’s the set-up for Craig Lucas’s latest play, The Lying Lesson, in which the 73-year-old movie star returns to her youthful stamping grounds, possibly intending to rekindle an ancient affair. Encouraging her is Minnie, a thirtyish local rube who takes care of the house and who, suspiciously, claims not to have heard of the town’s most famous alumna; she calls her, at first, Miss Davitz. Perhaps this is because Carol Kane’s version of the famous clipped voice sounds Hungarian.

It would be hard to imagine a plot less characteristic of Lucas’s work. The magic realism that runs through his plays and screenplays, in works like Blue Window and Longtime Companion and Prelude to a Kiss, is here transferred from the story itself into the character of Davis, still bigger than life in her last decade. Lucas seems to be interested not just in the way she made movies (there’s plenty of fun if familiar dish about Joan Crawford and Miriam Hopkins and the like) but also in the way movies made her. The power of art to transform little people into great ones through mastery of what amounts to fabrication is what gives the play its title and best moments. Unfortunately, as Lucas confesses in an author’s note about many of the imaginary plot details, it is all “a damn lie.”

Photo: Joan Marcus