The setup: Tempe's Stray Cat Theatre is the first U.S. company to present award-winning playwright Annie Baker's The Flick since it premièred off-Broadway in March. It's a long play in several scenes that take place entirely between co-workers in an otherwise empty Massachusetts movie house (called The Flick) before, between, and after film showings.
The execution: Specifically, this production, like the original, is almost exactly three hours long, including intermission. Some subscribers at Manhattan's Playwrights Horizons literally walked out. I don't get that -- by the time you've experienced enough theater to subscribe to an off-Broadway company, you really ought to be able to appreciate something wonderful, in whatever form it takes. But maybe some people just buy the whole season for the cachet -- so that someday they can say things like, "I saw Sunday in the Park with George in 1983 when it wasn't even finished yet."
And wonderful is what The Flick is. Some of the reasons are hard to put into words. At the beginning of the play, you begin to suspect that at least two thirds of the characters are underachieving, insensitive, self-doubting ordinary people. Later, you'll find that you were perhaps 75% right. About everybody. But there's never a moment when Baker allows you to disrespect them.
Yes, the dialogue is masterfully natural, and maybe that's what makes some audience members rebel against the idea that this is art. Or it's that these characters haltingly talk all around the things they really want or need to say. As people do. And it can be infuriating.
But if you stick with it (and yeah, I've been told the same thing the few times I've had to walk out), you'll find that the little taste of tedium the characters share with you is a 24-hour cold virus compared to the 1918 Spanish influenza they live in 24/7. And, in what is a clear departure from naturalism, each of The Flick's isolated grunts gets at least one transcendent moment of expressing their own absolute truth with clarity, which doesn't necessarily reach its target. (Or even its speaker.)
It might help you to go in remembering that people don't always tell each other the facts, even when you can't imagine why they wouldn't. Director Ron May's cast isn't going to come right out and let you know what's a deception and which deceptions are on purpose. Baker's script doesn't, either. As in life, you take your best guess and go on from there. Even The New York Times' Charles Isherwood drew some conclusions about the world of The Flick for which I don't think he has hard evidence.
The other thing critics and audiences tend to mention are the pauses. This cast -- Louis Farber, Micah Jondel DeShazer, and Courtney Weir, all simply phenomenal -- is so engaged that I might not have even noticed that this play has pauses if I hadn't read up on it. Films (good and bad alike) often have long dialogue-free stretches, and, like a film, The Flick has things happening in its quiet moments. Interesting things. You'll watch people sweep and mop, yeah, but you're also watching them think. Avoid each other. Observe each other. Struggle within themselves.
The verdict: Like any other good play, The Flick has a beginning, middle, and end, gradual, subtle exposition, humor when you aren't expecting it, symbolism you can feel free to ignore, characters who change, people you'll like more, people you'll like a little less, and a crisis and denouement. You should just forget that it's well-known for being long and slow. During and after seeing it, I didn't get either of those impressions. Not once. And everything else, too -- the performances, the set, the lighting, the sound design -- is as perfect as it could be.
The Flick continues through Saturday, October 5, at Tempe Performing Arts Center, 132 East Sixth Street. Buy tickets, $15 to $25, here or at the door, or call 480-227-1766. Tonight, Thursday, October 3, is $10 Student Night (with ID, duh)!