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Monday, March 6, 2023

REVIEW: LONG BUT INVOLVING, CCP'S "THE FLICK" WEDS FINE ACTING & WRITING IN SUPERB PRODUCTION

By Ruth Ross

Movie going/movie showing has changed exponentially since I started going to see films with my chums in the late 1950s. We order our tickets (and sometimes our snacks) online. We park in a tiered parking garage. We sit in thickly padded reclining chairs powered by buttons on the side. Movies are digitally projected on a huge screen. And when the film is over, we exit the 12-theater multiplex and go home. Rarely do we give a thought as to what happens in that venue when we leave.

Well, The Flick, an entertaining dramedy by Annie Baker, currently onstage at the Chatham Community Players, takes care of that by transporting us to a grotty, old-time movie house in central Massachusetts. You know, one with a real box office out front, a popcorn and soda counter in the lobby, and a projector threaded with real film and run by a real person in a projection booth high above the back seats.

The play’s 14 scenes follow two underpaid ushers, Sam and Avery (right), and Rose (who also runs the film projector), who perform the humdrum and tedious labor necessary to keep theater running, including cleaning spilled popcorn and soda from the floors and attending to one of the last 35mm film projectors in the state. Their tiny battles and not-so-tiny heartbreaks, delivered in bits of conversation that might seem insignificant, play out in the empty aisles as they clean up, slowly becoming more gripping than the lackluster, second-run movies on screen.

That the play’s three-hour runtime flies by rather quickly is due to Gabrielle Wagner Mann’s inspired direction that keeps the action moving inexorably along to a fraught and somewhat surprising denouement.

Mann has cast three exceptionally talented actors to deliver this mundane dialogue. As 35-year-old Sam, Peter Despres skillfully conveys the ennui experienced by a young man in a dead-end job with no other prospects in sight. That he trains and works beside Avery, a 21-year-old young Black brainiac, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of film and strong opinions about which ones are the best, 
doesn’t do much for his self-esteem. Josiah Howell (far left, with Despres) is terrific as Avery, a feat even more amazing given that this is the first time he has appeared onstage! He beautifully conveys Avery’s growth as a person during his tenure as an usher; it stands in stark contrast to the stasis experienced by Sam. 

Rounding out the trio is Ivy Leigh Meyer (right with Howell) as the projectionist Rose, a late-20-something, rather crass young woman who first appears drawing a penis in lipstick on the windows of the booth and accompanying it with a lewd movement!
 She comes on (sexually) to the na├»ve, less experienced Avery (below left), an especially unsettling move for him and the audience, yet when she subsequently reveals a side that she’d rather hide, she gains our sympathy. Finally, in a very minor role, Peter Corley (below, right) provides some levity as a man found sleeping in his seat after the film has ended and, later, as Skyler, the new usher Sam must train as the play draws to a close.

The three actors are to be commended for remembering so much dialogue and delivering it so naturally and convincingly that it never feels as though they are reciting words written by someone else. It’s also worth noting that the silences interspersing their conversations are equally as natural and important in that they force the audience to focus on the “existential minutiae” (Robert Simonson in Playbill) the three face as they attempt to connect with each other and alleviate the endless drudgery of their cleaning tasks.

Set designer extraordinaire Roy Pancirov and assistant Chris Anderson have created what appears to be a real movie theater on the Chatham Playhouse’s stage, complete with 40 real ratty cinema seats, curtains to the side, an entrance with double doors and a projectionist’s booth above the rear seats! Anderson also designed the sound, which consists of film scores from Pulp Fiction, Chariots of Fire, The Graduate, Mannequin and Back to the Future; Director Mann chose most of the selections herself. Lighting designer Mark Reilly nails the flickering of the projector, so we really feel as though we are in the cinema. Costumes by Leslie Williams Ellis and Gabrielle Wagner Mann include ushers’ “uniforms” of burgundy tee shirts and black pants, along with funky clothes (work boots, tights, colorful tops, skirts and jeans) that telegraph Rose’s quirkiness. And the stagehands that sprinkle popcorn between scenes add to the location's verisimilitude.

The Flick is a play where nothing happens, and everything happens. True, there is a lot of mopping and sweeping of floors, but it is accompanied by tender, heartbreaking moments that sneak up when you least expect it. It is a splendid theatrical experience for serious theatergoers.

Despite its length, The Flick won 2013 Obie Award for Playwriting and the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, with the Pulitzer committee stating that the play is a "thoughtful drama with well-crafted characters that focuses on three employees of a Massachusetts art-house movie theatre, rendering lives rarely seen on the stage." It was also nominated for the prestigious Drama Desk and Lortel Awards in several categories. (Left: Despres finds a shoe)

The Chatham Community Players’ production does justice to the original Off-Broadway production and reinforces the importance of superb local theater. So, if you love live theater, movies and fine acting, you won’t want to miss The Flick

But you’d better hurry, for it will run at the Chatham Playhouse, 23 N. Passaic Ave., in Chatham for one more weekend: March 9, 10, and 11, at 7:30 PM and Sunday, March 12 at 2:30 PM. For information and tickets, visit www.ChathamPlayers.org online.

Photos by Melanie Ruskin Photography.