Annie Baker’s “The Flick” may be set inside an empty movie house. But the misfit characters in her play, who toil at this semi-rundown single-screen theater near Worcester that still uses celluloid projection, are a far cry from your typical big-screen heroes and villains. Indeed, they’re the kind of lost, lonely, inarticulate souls who’d fade into the background as cashiers or hotel desk clerks in your average Hollywood action flick or rom-com.
“You’re watching characters that never get talked about in movies, the people who don’t have the fascinating lives that get made into films. They’re the ushers in a movie theater, small-town folk cleaning up popcorn,” says Sam Gold, who directed the world premiere of “The Flick” last year at Playwrights Horizons in New York. “I fell in love with all three of them and came to truly care about them.”
The play went on to pocket an Obie Award and earned Baker the prestigious Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, which honors female playwrights. Now Company One Theatre is producing the New England premiere of “The Flick” in collaboration with Suffolk University, at the Modern Theatre through March 15.
Baker, who was born in Cambridge, raised in Amherst, and now lives in New York, has become one of the freshest voices in the American theater. She burst onto the scene in 2009-10 with a double-blast of “The Aliens” and “Circle Mirror Transformation,” which went on to share the Obie for best new American plays. “The Flick” features the same leisurely pace and prolonged silences that have become hallmarks of her work, but which have also tested the patience of some audiences or been dismissed as gimmicks. “The Aliens,” which Baker specified should be about one-third silent, contains an extended monologue where a character utters the word “ladder” over and over.
Baker’s plays are naturalistic. The dialogue comes in fits and starts, often as idle chitchat, and there is little in the way of traditional action to speak of. Yet there is much going on under the surface.
“If you were to look at it on a timeline, So this play is however many scenes of them cleaning a room, you’d think, How could that possibly be interesting?” says Alex Pollock before a recent rehearsal at the Modern Theatre. Pollock plays Sam, a 35-year-old guy stuck in a dead-end job. “It’s like literally the same thing happening over and over again. But there are these little dynamic shifts that happen. Something is revealed about a person, or something is discovered amongst the characters, or something is shared. There are all these different layers to the relationships.”
Indeed, in between this mundane action arises a whole ocean of human emotion and drama — secret yearnings, quiet heartbreaks, loneliness and resentment, disappointment and betrayal. As the play unfolds, the characters struggle with personal and moral conflicts, not to mention an unhealthy dose of self-delusion.
A veteran usher, Sam takes newbie Avery under his wing. Avery’s a student at nearby Clark University, a quintessential nerd and avid movie buff who works at the theater because it’s one of the last in the area still using a 35mm projector. Sam and Avery discuss their favorite films, and Avery laments the scourge of digital projection. Meanwhile, Sam has a crush on Rose, the projectionist with unruly dyed green hair and a slouchy black wardrobe. When Rose offers to teach Avery how to use the projector, Sam becomes irritated at her insensitivity, revealing to Avery that he’s asked Rose many times to do the same thing for him.
“These are characters who are dealing with major anxiety. They are characters who are dealing with self-definition,” says Shawn LaCount, the Company One artistic director who’s helming “The Flick.” “The play is also about loyalty and who can we trust and the concept of faith. Like Chekhov, Baker quietly asks all of the big questions in her plays in a way that we do as people all the time — whether we’re doing it consciously or in the big moments or little moments of our lives.”
When Rose attempts a clumsily overt seduction of Avery, the intimate moment is as uncomfortable and funny as it is deeply human.
“Her writing is really funny without ever betraying the truth of a character or the honesty of the situation in order to get a laugh,” Gold says over the phone from New York. “The punch lines come from the rhythm, they come from how she’s playing with time. So you can get a laugh from how long it takes for somebody to respond or what they say after a long pause.”
Still, with its slow pace, prolonged interludes of silence, and three-hour running time, “The Flick” polarized theatergoers in New York. When it premiered at Playwrights Horizons last year, it was reported that some audience members had walked out of the play, with some threatening to cancel their subscriptions. The outcry provoked the artistic director of the theater, Tim Sanford, to take the unusual step of e-mailing 3,000 of his subscribers a letter explaining and standing by his decision to produce the play.
Gold dismisses the brouhaha as an unfortunate distraction. “People walk out of plays during previews all the time. It’s a problem with the way nonprofit, subscriber-based theaters work, which is that audience members buy tickets to plays that they don’t know anything about, because they’re buying a whole season,” he says. “It’s not unique to ‘The Flick’ or Annie’s work. By the time the play found its audience, no one walked out.”
Company One is no stranger to heated reactions to Baker’s work. In 2010, the theater co-produced the Shirley, Vt. Plays at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, in collaboration with the Huntington Theatre Company and SpeakEasy Stage Company. The festival centered on a trio of Baker’s plays, with Company One mounting “The Aliens.”
LaCount recalls a woman he knew in the front row for a performance of “The Aliens” who was yawning audibly, “with volume.”
“It was in a way that was like letting everyone know that she was not having this. And that hurt my heart for a moment,” he says, perched in the balcony of the Modern Theatre as set builders and technicians buzz about below. “On the surface, yeah, there’s the length of the thing, there’s the long silences. But I think the thing that’s polarizing, actually, is that it’s nerve-striking. Like I recognize my own anxieties in these people.”
Pollock praises Baker’s “musical ear,” her ability to compose a play like a piece of music, and he doesn’t see much fat that could have been cut.
“If there’s a silence, it’s there because a moment needs to land or there needs to be a reverberation,” he says. “I feel like the silences are as valuable as the dialogue.”
Gold marvels at the “deceptively smart structure” of Baker’s work.
“You never notice exposition in her plays. You never notice how she’s building the story,” he says. “The fact that she does it so slyly means that the plays feel extremely honest and extremely real. I think the degree to which she pushes that aspect feels fresh to people.”
Company One has staged “a lot of infuriating plays,” LaCount says with a laugh, but it’s never been afraid to provoke or even anger audiences in its efforts to break away from the conventional notions of theater.
“When it’s something so different, you expect audiences to revolt sometimes,” LaCount says. “What Annie is doing in the form right now, I think it’s a major movement for the American theater,” he adds. “I actually think she’s defining a genre within our time, and you can’t say that about a lot of playwrights.”