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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.

Monday, April 01, 2013

Thoughts on The Flick

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.


Thomas Garvey said...

You know, I feel asleep in "The Aliens," but not because it was about young people. Somehow I manage to stay awake in other shows about young people all the time. I haven't seen "The Flick" yet - and probably will decide not to; but in general, when the defense of a play depends on identity politics - as this, like most, defenses of "The Flick" have - I find there's some validity to the original critique.

Freeman said...

Fair enough. I don't know if I'd call who I wrote "identity politics" so much as my personal experience and views by watching the play and experiencing audience reaction live.

And, again, The Flick isn't About Young People, which might be the problem for some of the audience. It just features people in their twenties and thirties talking like they do and dealing with things as they do. I've seen far more oblique material treated with far more reverence. And, I might add, these characters are all college educated adults in their twenties and thirties.

My defense of the play (if that's what this is) is also about the fact that I honestly liked it. Trust me, I can be a pretty harsh and dismissive critic of work, which is why I don't write about the plays I see much on my blog.

Thomas Garvey said...

Just btw, I feel that Annie Baker has more talent than most of the new playwrights. She is far better than the Vogelettes, for instance. But these twee silences are metastasizing in her work, and compromising it. Indeed, at least in "Circle Mirror" and "Aliens" they disguised a lack of complexity, and a growing reliance on melodrama, in her approach. I worry that she is not actually maturing, but simply covering her tracks with a generational gimmick. As I said, "The Aliens" felt thin - and "The Flick" is TWICE as long? It sounds like trouble to me.

Freeman said...

Interesting thoughts. I actually haven't seen the other work, so I have nothing to compare this to other than her reputation. The silences didn't strike me as excessive here, but it is, in fact, a long play.

Jigsaw said...

We did Circle Mirror Transformation at my theater last year. When I first read it, I thought the pauses were the work of a playwright who couldn't give up the idea of directing her own words.

But our director took them to heart, and trained his cast to nail them as closely as they could. And the end result was, on viewing, I felt that Baker had managed to write the pauses. It felt like the length of pause had a direct correlation to the meaning of the lines surrounding it.

Also, the fact that every pause longer than half a second was written into the script meant that the actors were less likely to add unnecessary pauses. Which meant that the show was actually quite brisk, despite moments of silence.

Thomas Garvey said...

I agree that "Circle Mirror Transformation" is her strongest play, but this is because the silences are structured; they're disciplined, the way Pinter pauses are (although they function quite differently). But as I said, since then the silences have taken over.

Nano Fish said...

I heard there was a fracas during one performance between a murder of condescending NYU theater students (free entry?) and the usual (paying) PH suspects of "rich geezers" and "white-haired old ladies" over the [lack of] artistic merits of the play. Now, that "discussion" would have made a great play in itself, something more like "No Exit." Hell is other people.

I did leave at intermission. I only say this with pride today because clearly, the MFA contingent has declared me too aged and infirmed to know the difference between this play and bad theater. That makes me a member of a newly oppressed minority: experienced theater audiences.

Having only recently been reminded by Tim's letter of what a philistine I had become by daring not to like the play, despite my healthy contributions to his company, I was joyful at knowing I could chalk up my opinion to senility. Could adult diapers be that far away?

In general I like Chekov and Beckett. I know that Annie does too. I also enjoyed Herzog's last offering at PH. But "The Flick" was arduous and flaccid (no pun, Avery). It needed editing. The voids added mostly nothing. A bold risk, I am told, meant to add a meditative introspection to the mesmerizing experience of slow-talking under-achievers.

Despite my incumbent decrepitude, I will continue to infuriate the angry young grad students by showing up to occupy theater seats at inflated prices; much like their parents who want to "friend" them on Facebook, interrupting private discussions of funny cat photos and people who shop at Wal-Mart.

Youth has the ineluctable property of being un-expectantly transient. At thirty-something, it may be time to attempt something ageless before the youngsters behind you start writing themselves. You only get to play the youth card a limited number of times before you start to look like a congressman who dresses like Justin Bieber. (You know who you are, and turn that stupid baseball cap around. You can't drive a BMW and still claim to be a disaffected youth.)

Jus sayin don't be haters. Ya feel me.