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First Nighter: Annie Baker's Flick Delves Deep Into Lasting Silver-screen Effects

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Annie Baker is a genuine original. She's the real thing. Apparently constitutionally unable to repeat herself, she follows her joyfully received Body Awareness, Circle Mirror Transformation, The Aliens and last season's Uncle Vanya version with the bold absolutely mesmerizing comic drama, The Flick.

Call it unique, although Baker's influences are apparent. For two, there's Woody Allen's Radio Days and Purple Rose of Cairo about how radio and movies shape the lives of ordinary listeners, and for two more, Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels and Giuseppe Tornatore's Cinema Paradiso dealing with the same fascinating subject. Consciously or unconsciously, she may even have certain Edward Hopper paintings on her fertile mind.

An honest reviewer must quickly concede that by its very atypical nature, the work at Playwrights Horizons may not be for everyone. Nonetheless, The Flick remains a play that significantly raises the bar on the season's offerings.

And it's not Baker's accomplishment alone. It's also director Sam Gold's. To say the two of them must be on the same wave length is akin to announcing water is wet. Prior to the flick, Gold and Baker seamlessly collaborated on Circle Mirror Transformation, The Aliens and Uncle Vanya.

Now The Flick offers confirmation -- as if confirmation is necessary -- that they're a team worth lauding and encouraging. But what's The Flick about? A brief summary may sound as if it's about very little at all. On top of that, learning it runs close to three hours with only one intermission might be enough to send readers scampering from this review.

It's only fair to report that the lack of anything highly dramatic taking place did have some audience members, but not many, taking advantage of the break to scram. They were the losers. They hadn't grasped how deeply Baker would get into the lives of the three people forming the staff of an unprepossessing Worcester County, Mass., movie house called The Flick.

These benighted people are plodding, unambitious, likable Sam (Matthew Maher, fast becoming one of the city's best character men), smart but out-of-step and depressed African-American Avery (Aaron Clifton Moten, flawlessly unobtrusive and unforgettable) and wired and enigmatic projectionist Rose (Louisa Krause with Elphaba-green hair and dance moves Ellen DeGeneres would envy).

On David Zinn's impeccable movie-house replica with its rows of pull-down seats and instantly recognizable sconces and second-floor windows revealing part of the projection booth, Flick vet Sam and newcomer Avery initially arrive between showings for the "walk-through" -- sweeping up whatever popcorn, soda cans and other trash has been left behind by careless patrons.

For the following two acts, they repeat their walk-throughs incessantly -- swabbing the sticky floors only every Wednesday. While sweeping over and again, they chat about themselves and their backgrounds. They argue about movies -- Sam testing Avery's knowledge by way of a variation on the Six-Degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon game with which film aficionados are familiar.

Sam develops a skin rash he identifies as pityriasis rosea. Rose comes on to Avery to their joint embarrassment during an after-hours viewing of Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch. They compare sun signs. Rose and Sam introduce Avery to a money-skimming scam they pull on unseen, penny-pinching owner Steve. On his cellphone, Avery recounts a dream in the darkened theater.

The three of them ponder obsolescing 35-millimeter film and coming-on-strong digital projection, with Avery adamant that the latter spells the end of movie watching as we want it. Over the several weeks before Steve sells the place, 20-year-old Avery, living with his semiotics-linguistic teaching father at home, comes to think he and 35-year-old Sam, who lives with his mother, are friends. Sam comes to think Avery has betrayed him in a tussle over projectionist duties.

So nothing dramatically earth-shaking occurs as Jane Cox's lighting hits every recognizable in situ effect -- down to enveloping the actual audience in silver-screen silver. Yet everything pertinent to these three comes to the fore. (Alex Hanna plays both a customer and a new worker in two of the many vignettes.) Only the possible repercussions of their skimmed "dinner money" provides anything amounting to suspense.

As they sweep the floor and swap their stories -- "waiting for things to change," as one of them puts it -- Baker builds a world in which the movies have stopped for the time being or for the night but their immeasurable impact on vacant lives continues.

To Baker's and Gold's credit -- although others may consider it their discredit -- they take their bittersweet time unfolding the deprived lives of these eventually enthralling coworkers who've substituted movies for life and in such a literal way they seem never to leave their dream palace. When they speak, the frequent silences interrupting what they have to say stretch. In Baker's script, the number of pauses and long pauses indicated make Harold Pinter's people sound like cattle auctioneers.

Incidentally, when the lights fade at the outset and before Sam and Avery enter with the tools of their trade, two minutes of thundering music pierces the dark. Obviously, it's underscoring, though not written by sound designer Bray Poor. Baker's script indicates the excerpt is from Bernard Herrmann's score for The Naked and the Dead (1958).

Occasionally,more movie music in various moods plays to fill the seconds between scenes -- none of it credited in the program and only Georges Delerue's Jules and Jim theme cited in the script as covering the closing moments.

Furthermore, somewhere in the proceedings, Avery hums the melody to "Le Tourbillon de la Vie," the song Delerue and Cyrus Bassiak wrote for Jeanne Moreau to sing in Jules and Jim. When Krause gets party-hyperkinetic in front of dumbstruck Avery, Baker suggests in her stage directions either a Lil Wayne or Jay-Z item, but search me if either is what's piped in.

Is there anything wrong with The Flick? I've wracked my brain to see if anything is, and I've come up with one glaring lapse: There's no broken seat. Baker, Gold and Zinn -- who designed the grim uniforms as well as the top-notch set -- have forgotten that in any aging movie house, at least one seat has malfunctioned. Or, failing that, a couple of armrests.

Otherwise, perfection.