Annie Baker’s The Flick is the best American drama I’ve seen since August: Osage County, and that’s against strong competition from the likes of Bruce Norris, Jon Robin Baitz, Amy Herzog and the earlier work of Annie Baker herself.
Baker is a young playwright with the technique of an old master. Her hyperrealist management of dialogue — counting every beat, marking every stutter and catch of the voice -–is like so much intricate brushwork and soft colouring. Her portraiture is a kind of Vermeer for the stage, natural and profound. Or call it Chekhov for the 21st century, the way it all happens in such an ordinary and circumstantial way, yet proves durable as a church.
The Flick, then, is her Cherry Orchard, a study in melancholy and progress.
The last time we saw Baker’s work in Melbourne was a Red Stitch production of The Aliens in 2011, directed by Nadia Tass with Brett Ludeman and Brett Cousins, both extraordinary as odd-ball outsiders holding court in an alley behind a café. Nadia Tass and Red Stitch have teamed up once again for this new production, co-presented with the Melbourne International Film Festival, and it’s one of the great theatre events of the year, with a crackling good ensemble performance by Kevin Hofbauer, Ngaire Dawn Fair and Ben Prendergast, and a cosy, site-specific set by Shaun Gurton of the Melbourne Theatre Company.
The Flick is about a run-down single-screen movie theatre somewhere in the suburban wilds of middle America. It’s one of only a handful of venues still using a 35mm movie projector (the year is 2011), a peculiarity which owes more to the owner’s laziness than any fond attachment to celluloid. With a new owner soon to take control, the move to digital seems imminent.
Kevin Hofbauer plays an awkward 20 year-old film nut whose just taken a job sweeping the theatre and selling popcorn. He’s an obsessive, introspective character, both depressive and dreamy, with an uncanny talent for six degrees of Kevin Bacon. Watching movies has given him unrealistic expectations of life. The real world dismays him, upsets his natural guilelessness. The prospect of digital taking over is almost too much.
Ngaire Dawn Fair and Ben Prendegast are his co-workers. She’s an effervescent, self-obsessed projectionist with green hair; he’s a35 year-old loner who still lives with his parents. Across several months of shift work, the three bump along in a complicated and sometimes tenuous friendship. There is love and hate, muted and deferred; differences in class and race pull them apart, while loneliness pushes them together.
It’s a sentimental story, marked in moments of tenderness and distress, but without mush or frenzy. Nadia Tass, all gentleness, strokes and soothes, never trying to make a tragedy of something that isn’t. Tass and Baker are a natural fit. Annie Baker threads her scenes in an almost filmic way, coming in late and getting out early. That suits Tass, an experienced filmmaker, who weights each scene equally, like discrete vignettes. Nadia Tass’s partner, the cinematographer David Parker, is also onboard as lighting designer.
With Red Stitch concurrently presenting Glory Dazed at its St Kilda base, a new temporary theatre has been built in the band room at Shebeen bar in the city. It’s a rough-made, out-of-the-way venue, but seems apt for a story about outsiders and misfits. Gurton’s set presents the audience with a bank of red vinyl movie theatre seats and a projectionist’s booth. The mirror effect -– the audience looking at an empty theatre -– is a poignant one, and gives a dreamlike touch to the otherwise sharp realism.
The performances are all remarkably consistent and deep in their characterisation. Ngaire Dawn Fair bounces of the walls, glances sidelong at the boys, exaggerates when she’s at a loss. It’s easily her best work with Red Stitch. Kevin Hofbauer is a revelation. This is a story about growing up when you’re already meant to be a grown-up, and it’s fascinating to see Hofbauer’s young introvert develop. It’s a bitter-sweet progress, as hopeless idealism cedes to something tougher and less forgiving.
Ben Prendergast is forever wincing and flinching as the eternal drudge forced to watch a string of twenty-somethings promoted ahead of him. He’s moody and disgruntled, but generous too, up to a point. There’s a lot of humour and fun in Prendergast and Hofbauer’s banter. Was Pulp Fiction the last great American film? But what about Avatar? It’s a warm, odd-couple vibe, but with a faint, persistent sense of estrangement, which is very subtly done.
Life goes on. No-one really cares about digital projection, except Hofbauer’s character. But it does mean change, and everyone can feel it coming. The parallels with The Cherry Orchard shouldn’t be overemphasised. The Flick has its own special life, its own neighbourhood. But the powerful mix of humour and sadness does recall a peculiarly Chekhovian sort of truthfulness- – that poetry which is the spirit of our times. Indeed, an extraordinary addition to the Red Stitch 2014 program.