Pam and I went to see Annie Baker's play "The Flick" at Playwright's Horizons last week. The production's popularity (or lack thereof) with the subscribers at the theater prompted a much-discussed explanation from the Artistic Director Tim Sanford, which itself received a subsequent "tsk tsk" from Charles Isherwood. (Isherwood applauds Sanford's honorable intentions, but thinks the message is overly apologetic.)
For the record, we both pretty much loved The Flick. Is it flawless? Nothing is. Still, it's beautifully written and observed, in a style that is plain and pleasurable. Staged to perfection by Sam Gold, with a really amazing set. What really struck us, I think, is that The Flick was recognizable to us. I'm in my mid-thirties. I've had that job, so to speak, and so have many of my friends. (My friend Dave actually was a manager of a movie theater in Boston when we attended Emerson College.) In this day and age, many college-educated people live with their parents, debate movies as a sort of common language, try to find ways to relate to people they've met through happenstance, and struggle with the transitory nature of low-paid employment.
The cast, also, is simply spectacular. Louisa Krause, Matthew Maher, Aaron Clifton Moten are all just incredibly smart and truthful throughout; with Alex Hanna delivering some fine work in smaller roles. (The "Rose Dance Party" scene is easily one of my favorite moments of acting on stage this past year, mostly for being so authentically awkwardly fun.)
Many audience members in the house agreed with our response. There was laughter and recognition. There was a large segment of the audience that clearly didn't.
To my eyes - and I didn't take a poll, of course - the divide seemed generational. A full two rows or so of audience members did not return after intermission, and, from my vantage point, it appeared as if it was an older group that walked out.
The play itself, though, is not really attempting to bridge that gap. The Flick, I think, is not written about people in their twenties or thirties; it is a play that features characters who are authentically themselves, playing out their own story, in a way that seems to grow organically from their circumstances and personalities. Instead of displaying a younger generation for an older audience to learn about or compare itself to, The Flick feels like a play by someone in her thirties for others of a similar age or experience.
Perhaps that's isolating to a piece of the audience. That's certainly not intentional. The Flick isn't alienating in any way I could discern. It features likeable characters and handles them with a sweet-natured kindness, even when the material lets them be ugly. In fact, The Flick is remarkably conventional for a play that's caused so much rancor. I don't mean this to be dismissive - it's well-crafted and satisfying. We meet three characters, we learn about their given circumstances, we get a bit of a love-triangle, we're presented with some ethical quandaries, it all fits together. It even ties up all its various threads - secret histories are revealed, class struggles are played out, loves confessed, friendships are formed and tested. The individual scenes are likely to be assigned by university acting instructors for years to come.
So, what's all this about? What's causing the debate? Beyond the fact that some members of the audience just didn't relate?
First, there's this question of length and pausing. Watching the show, I never felt like the pauses were excessive. Sure, The Flick takes three hours to complete the thought, but what makes three hours "too long?" David Mamet gives us an hour-ish of a new play and puts it on Broadway. Is that too short? Elevator Repair Service spends nine-hours telling us the story of a book we've already read. It's a challenge that many audiences have taken on, proudly.
Essentially, I think the question of length is a dead-end street. It's a criticism that's a substitute for something else.
And that, really, is content. The issue here isn't style or form, but it the content of the piece itself. Larger New York City theaters, such as Playwright's Horizons, have a basic economic problem. One that's shared by most non-profits. Their subscribers are aging. No matter how edgy you'd like to be, or how bold and young the artists are, their audience is largely made up of their parents and grandparents. And those individuals are not, it seems, enthralled by a particularly rousing tete-a-tete about the merits of Pulp Fiction , nor do they likely identify the theme music of Marvel's The Avengers just by hearing a few bars played over the loudspeakers.
That's not to say, I think, that this audience doesn't care about the generations that will follow. I just think they are not used to being left out of the conversation, especially in a room that caters to their aesthetic most of the time.
This problem is only going to get more pronounced. I would guess that there is not a glut of young subscribers coming to take the place of the average subscriber at Playwright's Horizons; but that the theater itself, in order to carry out its mission, will continue to look for new and younger voices. Unless younger subscribers start getting sold on the idea of joining and subscribing (and of course, I mean younger in the non-profit sense, which means under 60), shows like The Flick will probably be oft-discussed. It's audience just isn't represented in the room.
I'd love to hear others' thoughts on this.
Tickets for the Flick (which runs until April 7th) can be gotten herein.
- Matthew Freeman is a Brooklyn based playwright with a BFA from Emerson College. His plays include THE DEATH OF KING ARTHUR, REASONS FOR MOVING, THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE AMERICANS, THE WHITE SWALLOW, AN INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR, THE MOST WONDERFUL LOVE, WHEN IS A CLOCK, GLEE CLUB, THAT OLD SOFT SHOE and BRANDYWINE DISTILLERY FIRE. He served as Assistant Producer and Senior Writer for the live webcast from Times Square on New Year's Eve 2010-2012. As a freelance writer, he has contributed to Gamespy, Premiere, Complex Magazine, Maxim Online, and MTV Magazine. His plays have been published by Playscripts, Inc., New York Theatre Experience, and Samuel French.