By Annie Baker. Outhouse Theatre Co. Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre (NSW). April 5 – 21, 2018
The raked seating of the Reginald Theatre is mirrored by a similar rake of red plush seating. Red and black cinema style carpet stretches up steps to an aisle. Above it, in a high, dark-curtained wall are the windows of the projection box of The Flick, a cinema in Worcester, Massachusetts. Both theatre and cinema black out simultaneously. Loud music heralds the credits of a movie. Lights come up on the empty cinema, littered with spilt popcorn.
The striking verisimilitude of Hugh O’Connor’s set matches the plausible verisimilitude of this most unusual play. It’s long (three hours), but it’s persuasively real. Characters stand in still contemplation. Pauses stretch. Dialogue falters. It is a cunning writer who demands so many silent moments; a brave director who follows those demands so conscientiously. But for this play it’s essential – and it works. It won an Obie for playwright Annie Baker in 2013, and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2014 – and this production, in the very experienced directorial hands of Craig Baldwin, treats it with care and integrity.
The play follows the everyday work routine of three cinema workers. Sam, in his thirties, has been in the job for twenty years. He’s a plodder, to whom the monotony of the routine has become second nature, but he’d love to learn to run the projector. Rose is the projectionist, younger than Sam, pretty, outwardly self-contained, but a little remote. Avery is a twenty-year-old college student and movie buff who hates the “cold clarity” of digital movies. He has taken the job over the summer break because this one of the last cinemas showing 35mm film.
The play evolves as they clean the cinema after regular movies sessions. With brooms and long handled dust pans, they sweep up spilt popcorn and pick up discarded snack packets. Sometimes they mop over the carpet. The repetitive scenes are transitioned by brief black outs, flickering light from the projection box and aisle lights, the clicking of the projector itself and theme music as credits role.
Coined a “comedy of the mundane”, the play has touches of Beckett and Pinter – and requires similar timing, intricate control and subtle characterisation. All of which Baldwin has achieved. The timing is meticulous. The characters speak in halting dialogue, broken by pauses that are exasperatingly long … but maddeningly natural. They are the basis . . . .