Standing at Willy Loman’s grave during the wrenching final scene of “Death of a Salesman,’’ his friend Charley famously sums up the life of a salesman in poetic but stark terms: “He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back — that’s an earthquake.’’
Today, more than six decades after Arthur Miller wrote those words, we’re all living on Willy’s fault line, keenly aware in the still-shaky aftermath of the Great Recession that the ground could shift beneath our feet at any moment and without any warning.
That could explain why a pervasive uncertainty and sense of precariousness — especially about our work lives and the sense of identity and meaning we draw from them — has rippled beneath much of what has been onstage in Boston lately.
Theater artists are forever in search of currency and connection, and what could be more of-the-moment and speak more directly to their audiences than plays that address the job insecurity gnawing at so many of those in the seats? Moreover, job insecurity is something theater people know from firsthand experience — it’s virtually the norm in the industry — so it’s no surprise that they often bring a depth of understanding and empathy to the subject.
That’s evident in Company One Theatre’s stellar production of Annie Baker’s “The Flick,’’ at the Modern Theatre at Suffolk University through March 15, in which movie theater employees try to cling to their jobs while being buffeted by corporate and technological change, mere afterthoughts to the unseen powers that control their lives.
In “No Place to Go,’’ recently presented at ArtsEmerson, Ethan Lipton spins a musical monologue about an “information refiner’’ (hmm, sounds like an editor) who rapidly descends from underemployment (he’s part-time) to unemployment when his company pulls up stakes and relocates. To Mars.
In the Builders Association’s “House/Divided,’’ inspired by John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath’’ and recently presented by ArtsEmerson, the past and the present speak to each other in one angry voice. Vignettes from “The Grapes of Wrath,’’ with the Joad family trekking west in search of work as crop pickers, alternate with scenes of modern-day dispossession, such as a woman who lost her home to foreclosure. Meanwhile, Wall Street brokers trade mortgage-backed securities as if it were all a grand game — but even the jobs of these Masters of the Universe aren’t secure when the market starts to plummet.
And then there is the progenitor when it comes to the tricky nexus of job and identity, “Death of a Salesman’’ itself, that timeless cry for attention to be paid when the system grinds a human being to bits, at Lyric Stage Company through March 16.
All in all, a night at the theater these days can feel like the opposite of escapism, even if “The Flick’’ and “No Place to Go’’ are laced with whimsy. But contemporary audiences don’t necessarily crave escape. In the wake of tectonic shifts that have shaken many once-secure occupations — no place to go, indeed — audiences have an appetite for creative takes on the disruptive change many of them have experienced in recent years.
What we’re seeing onstage is the marriage of a deeply personal subject, work, to a deeply personal medium, the theater. There can be an extra intensity to stage depictions of the new economic realities because theater by its very nature is all about the intimate close-up; those are actual humans in front of us in “The Flick,’’ pushing a broom down the aisle; we can’t distance ourselves from the struggles of the characters they’re playing.
Whether white collar or blue collar, middle-aged or millennial, the characters in these recent Boston productions face the possible loss of a job and all that flows from that: a home or a way of life or optimism about the future. Even when they reach back to another historical period, works like “House/Divided’’ tap into the anxieties of our own era: a time when words like downsizing and outsourcing and automation carry the weight of dread, when phrases like “decline of the middle class’’ and “erosion of the manufacturing sector’’ are the stuff of common parlance, when wages have remained stagnant while livelihoods have proven all too mobile.
Baker’s treatment of economic anxiety in “The Flick’’ is almost subtextual, rooted in the behavior and relationships of her characteristically quirky characters. Woven through the seemingly small, halting exchanges among three movie theater employees is the sense of a younger generation adrift in a world where opportunity itself has been downsized.
For Sam, Avery, and Rose, the days are shadowed by the imminent sale of the scruffy movie theater to a chain that is likely to institute a more rigid, less individual-friendly workplace environment. There are glimpses in the play of an increasingly common contemporary phenomenon: 20- and 30-somethings confronting a lower-than-expected ceiling on their career aspirations.
Sam, 35, has been pestering Rose, the 24-year-old projectionist, to train him on how to use the 35-millimeter projector. So far, she has dodged his requests. “Do you know how humiliating it is to be working with, like, 20-somethings who are rising in the ranks of your [expletive] job faster than you are?’’ Sam asks her. He is incensed when he learns that Rose has trained Avery, a 20-year-old college student who is working at the theater during a semester off. The irony, of course, is that the new owners are likely to convert to digital projection, eliminating the need for the very kind of expertise they are squabbling over.
Earlier in the play, when Avery and Sam are cleaning the movie theater’s aisles, Avery innocently asks: “What do you wanna, like, be when you grow up?’’ Sam reacts as though he has been struck in the face. “I am grown up,’’ he replies vehemently, adding: “That’s like the most depressing thing anyone’s ever said to me.’’ They continue sweeping for a few silent moments, and just before the scene ends in a blackout Sam says two final words to Avery: “A chef.’’ You don’t get the feeling that’s ever going to happen for him.
Later in “The Flick,’’ Baker underscores the kind of class schisms and dog-eat-dog behavior that economic hard times can bring. When she is confronted with the prospect of losing her position, the hitherto friendly Rose proves ruthlessly ready to sacrifice Avery’s job to preserve her own, and resorts to a self-justifying stream of logic: “I still have, like, $10,000 in student loans to pay off and my mom is a secretary.” She adds pointedly, speaking of herself and Sam: “And this is our, like — this isn’t like a job we have while we go to college. This is what we, like — feed ourselves with.’’
But of course a job is often about identity as well as sustenance. Avery may be working at a low-level job, but he’s a cinephile, and he believes there is art in his work: Those flickering images that must be preserved. The stock traders in “House/Divided’’ clearly pride themselves on thriving in a pressure-cooker environment not everyone could handle. The “information refiner’’ in “No Place to Go’’ may wax ironic about what he does for a living, but he seems to see it as a job worth doing, he cherishes the workplace camaraderie, and it brings a focus to his days.
A central paradox of our current age of economic anxiety is that our identities are more bound up with our jobs than ever at the very moment when those jobs are more insecure than ever. We are what we do — tethered by technology to the office even when we’re at home, checking work e-mails on our cellphones and laptops late at night — but what we do can abruptly disappear, a fact these plays forcefully drive home.
These productions take the next step, too, reminding us that when a job vanishes, all the assumptions that our livelihoods make possible — about our standard of living, about what the future holds, about who we are in the universe — go out the window.
When Lipton’s character is faced with the loss of his job in “No Place to Go,’’ he contemplates all the parts of his life that rest upon that job, then is struck by the sudden awareness that: “I am standing on nothing but the slenderest thread of magical thinking.’’
The information refiner is offered a chance to go to Mars, but what kind of chance is that, really? Like many of us, he’s connected to the world he knows and is comfortable with. It feels like Lipton’s sly commentary on the newly narrowed landscape of work, where employers hold all the cards and some choices are not really choices at all. Or, in the words of a song by Tom Waits, whose style Lipton seems to emulate in performance: “Two dead ends and you’ve still got to choose.’’
And what of Willy Loman, who is all too prone to the kind of magical thinking that tripped up the information refiner? Willy has given his company decades of dogged service in a soul-sapping sales position that has enabled him to support a family, however tenuously. His entire sense of himself pivots upon that job. So from the moment his young boss tells him that “there just is no spot here for you,’’ Willy is virtually a walking ghost.
Earlier, the salesman-as-Everyman makes a telling remark to another kind of apparition. “I still feel — kind of temporary about myself,’’ Willy tells the imagined figure of his brother Ben. He’s talking about the fact that he never really knew their father, but it’s a line that could land with a double meaning on the ears of post-recessionary audiences who are starting to suspect that feeling temporary just might be a permanent condition.