The Heartache of Celluloid Dreams Echoes in The Flick and Why Things Burn

Taylor Harris, Mikaela Krantz, Alex Organ and Jared Wilson star in Annie Baker's The Flick at Undermain.
Taylor Harris, Mikaela Krantz, Alex Organ and Jared Wilson star in Annie Baker's The Flick at Undermain.
Undermain Archive

The end of a movie marks the start of Annie Baker's 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Flick, now on in a fastidiously directed and beautifully acted regional premiere at Undermain Theatre. The movie is The Naked and the Dead, a 1958 Raoul Walsh action film whose soundtrack throbs with the pompous drumbeats of Bernard Herrmann's score.

From our vantage point in the intimate Undermain, we are the movie screen. Facing us are four rows of empty red seats and the gray back wall of a rundown movie house. (Robert Winn's realistic scenic design gets every detail right, as do costumer Giva Taylor's wardrobe choices and sound designer Paul Semrad's snatches of movie music.)

We can see into the little booth windows above the back row, where an old 35 mm film projector whirrs through the last reel. It's operated by Rose (Mikaela Krantz), a snappish young woman whose long, unbrushed hair is dye-streaked green. We don't see Rose at first. We see only that little flickering rectangle of white light on the glass pane. We hear only the pulsing strains of the music. This goes on several minutes longer than you'd expect.

Then silence. House lights in the movie house switch on and through the swinging doors at the top of the aisle burst Sam (Alex Organ), the 35-year-old usher-box-office-snack-bar-guy, and his trainee, collegiate filmophile Avery (Jared Wilson). It's "walk through" time at The Flick, a crumbling small-town cinema, one of the last in New England not using a digital projector. Sam goes over clean-up protocols. First, sweep popcorn and toss any sneaked-in edibles. "Who brings pudding into a movie theater?" he winces. At the end of the night, there's a "big mop" for spilled soda. Spigots on the drinks machine are soaked in seltzer, the pump on the butter squirter gets a swipe of Windex. Sam has a dead-end job but he takes pride in how it's done.

Post-show rituals — sweeping, mopping, splitting up "dinner money" skimmed from box office receipts — will be repeated with and without dialogue many times during The Flick. It's all the action there is, aside from the comically gymnastic ways Rose flops into those red seats when she deigns to emerge from the booth and talk to the guys.

Straight plays often require patience, but this one asks more than most. It's long. "Challengingly long," wrote one New York critic about the debut production at Playwrights Horizon in 2013, which went 15 minutes beyond the 165 of Undermain's production. But stick with it. The experience is worth the lengthy sit.

Like a great movie, The Flick draws you in and keeps you guessing without tying things in a bow. Pauses are built-in and it's meant to be acted with the unrushed pacing of Frederick Wiseman's cinema verité documentaries. People onstage move only when they need to and speak in the disjointed, banal shorthand of real life, with lots of "ums" and "likes."

"I'm kind of shit-phobic," Avery tells Sam as they discuss the gross stuff patrons do. That's about as colorful as Baker's language gets. Hers is the poetry of everyday language, of conversations overheard in mall food courts and lines at the post office. Her other plays The Aliens and Circle Mirror Transformation sound like this too.

Director and Undermain company member Blake Hackler has kept every moment of The Flick so natural it feels as if we're eavesdropping. His cast trusts the long silences and small, subtle gestures. They earn big laughs but don't gun for them. Alex Organ carries this play as Sam, but he doesn't get carried away doing it.

Slowly, we see relations among Sam, Avery and Rose triangulate as we learn who they are. Sam confides to Avery that he's in love with Rose and the stress of unrequited feelings has brought out a hive-like rash on his lower back. Rose flirts with Avery, who has taken a semester off from school to deal with depression. There's an awkward sexual moment between them late one night when Sam's away. They never speak of it again.

More secrets and betrayals emerge in the second act. Sam has to train another newbie, played by Taylor Harris. The movie theater itself turns on its employees when it looks like it might be sold to a chain that will replace the old projector with digital, thus eliminating the need for a projectionist. That, says Avery, is a slap at directors who still shoot on film, and an insult to moviegoers who appreciate the imperfections of celluloid.

Live theater has its charming imperfections too, but you won't find many in Undermain's performance of The Flick. It's a profoundly quiet epic-length play that puts a spotlight on people you'd never notice in real life. Think about them next time you, um, spill your popcorn.

Cindee Mayfield and Nikki Cloer in Why Things Burn by Ric Krause.
Cindee Mayfield and Nikki Cloer in Why Things Burn by Ric Krause.
Van Quattro

The freaks and oddballs in Ric Krause's short, dark one-act Why Things Burn want out of the circus and into the movies circa 1952. The sword swallower (Andrew Kasten) has already become an agent. Now trick rider Vera (Nikki Cloer) is doing extra work, maybe more if she starts sleeping with a lesbian casting director (Cindee Mayfield). That leaves a fire eater (Elias Taylorson) and hulking strong man (Danny O'Connor) in the lurch. They're both in love with Vera and the circus life.

Now playing at Margo Jones Theatre in Fair Park, directed by one of Dallas' best character actors, Van Quattro, Why Things Burn smolders but never really brings much heat. It's a character study done in short vignettes that start and stop more like film scenes as they try to fade and crosscut into each other. Performances are fine, particularly Mayfield's seduction of Cloer. Each character has a "let me tell you a story" bit that reveals a sordid past. Its 60-minute length is just right.

Full disclosure: I contributed a couple of dollars to this show's Kickstarter fund last year, just to encourage Quattro to get his passion project up and running. I'm glad he saw it through, and gathered good actors who took the ride with him.

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