Annie Baker’s The Flick won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama two years ago after an off-Broadway run at Playwrights Horizons, so it may seem too soon for a reappraisal. But few plays in my memory have so divided audiences and critics; the vaunted Pulitzer certainly was no guarantee of a commercial transfer. The play with its original cast and production have now opened in a limited run at the Barrow Street Theatre in Greenwich Village, and I’m strongly urging everyone I know to see it. Which will surely strike them as odd, because the first time around, I said it was about the worst play I’d ever seen, 3-plus hours of torture. Guess what? I was wrong.
Maybe not so much about the torture: the Barrow Street, one of my favorite shape-shifting performance spaces, is least comfortable in the standard configuration. The seats are cramped, the audience rake is slim to non-existent, and a long play is likely to leave you numb in the rear quarters.
Another kind of torture also is at play, in the collaboration between Baker and director Sam Gold, who in the service of naturalism, I suppose, have worried a smart, funny, poignant work into Chekhov strained through molasses. There are more pauses than in a Pinter anthology, filled not with Pinterian menace but with chin-stroking Russian-style ennui which, let’s be honest, only gets you so far in life.
And yet. We are in a small movie theater in Central Massachusetts, the last in the region still showing movies on a 35 mm projector. We face the room from the screen’s POV, seeing the rows of seats, the rear wall and, above, the projection booth (David Zinn’s set, with its 1950s earth-tone palette, is perfect). Sam (Matthew Maher) is sweeping up after a show and training young Avery (Aaron Clifton Moten) in the particulars of what may be encountered on the floor, how to care for the soda machine, et cetera. Sam is a white, easygoing townie who’s been in the job for awhile. Avery is black, the smart, morose son of a semiotics professor whose wife, Avery’s mother, ran off with a childhood sweetheart unearthed on Facebook.
Up in the booth is Rose (Louisa Krause), recently promoted to projectionist, something of a free spirit, or perhaps she’s just not interested. At least not until Avery enters the equation. Sam challenges Avery to Hollywood Six Degrees Of Separation (“Six Degrees Of Kevin Bacon”), at which Avery is like a wine taster, savoring the challenge of linking disparate names — try Michael J. Fox and Britney Spears — swirling them around his cranium for a few minutes before spitting out the connection in six steps or fewer. Rose, on the other hand, challenges Avery to come out of his shell, at which he is not nearly so good.
Not much else actually happens, until the theater is sold and Avery makes a quixotic pitch to the new owner to maintain the place as a shrine to celluloid. Oh, and there’s also the play’s moral crux, a scheme in which Sam and Rose have been casually skimming some of the daily box office receipts. They convince the reluctant Avery to join in the petty larceny.
And the thing of it is, on second viewing, I found myself completely drawn into the private worlds and fumbled intersections of these three ordinary lives (exquisitely played by these actors). Somewhere in the long spaces between words fitfully spoken are acutely and empathically observed people whose problems by the end I really got in to. And I concluded that sometimes, you just can’t trust artists to know what they’re about.
The Signature Theatre currently is home to two octogenarian playwrights-in-residence, one looking forward, one back. 82-year-old Athol Fugard’s new play, The Painted Rocks At Revolver Creek, opened last week. Now A.R. Gurney’s What I Did Last Summer has opened in an exceptionally engaging production directed by Jim Simpson. You don’t care, nor should you, that I saw this play’s premiere 33 years ago at the still-mourned Circle Repertory Theater. It was a mess. But, as with Edward Albee’s The Lady From Dubuque a few season back, the Signature has taken a once-dismissed work by a major playwright and given it a revelatory buffing.
What I Did Last Summer is a portrait of the artist as an obnoxious, whiny, demanding, horny, belligerent, mouthy teenage boy, long time ago. Charlie (played by Noah Galvin with all those qualities in full flower), is the most annoying boy since Neil Simon’s Eugene Jerome. Like Eugene, Charlie’s saving grace is that we know he will grow up to become, in this case, A.R. Gurney, whom we admire as the author of The Dining Room and Love Letters and The Middle Ages and Sylvia and tons of plays we’ve loved over the years. And we know because Simpson and the brilliant designer Michael Yeargan have taken literally the story of boy who comes of age by engaging with words. There are words everywhere, projected onto the tabula rasa of a set (the subtly kinetic projections are by John Narun).(There’s also a lone drummer, Dan Weiner down stage right, who with a light touch and a sense of humor drives home punchlines with actual rim-shots and underscores poignant moments with brushes on the snare.)
It’s 1945 and Charlie lives with his lonesome, frustrated mother Grace (Carolyn McCormick) and witchy big sister Elsie (Kate McGonigle) while Dad is off fighting in the Pacific. The setting is a summer place on the Canadian side of Lake Erie near their Buffalo home. Exploding with unfocused energy and unexplained anger, Charlie goes to work for the local recluse, Anna Trumbull (Kristine Nielsen, looking for all the world like Willie Nelson’s sister). Anna lives up in the woods, is known by the locals as the Pig Lady and has a past that includes Indian blood, a long-ago affair with the local doctor and a mysterious connection to Grace.
Under Anna’s capacious wing, Charlie becomes a proto commie-socialist-beatnik-agitator who just becomes more and more annoying, except that we know someday a butterfly wordsmith will emerge, when all those nouns, verbs and adjectives will find form and content. Charlie’s world is much closer to the upstate New York of Richard Russo than the oppressive houses of Simon’s Brighton Beach. But the yearning for escape, for possibility, is familiar.