The best Off Broadway productions so far this year—The Flick at Playwrights Horizons, Belleville at New York Theatre Workshop, and Really Really at Manhattan Class Company—would probably make lousy movies. There’s no shame in that, but plenty of irony. After all, the traditional well-made play still serves as the model for most film scripts. To stake out fresh territory, talented young writers like Annie Baker, Amy Herzog, and Paul Downs Colazzo have veered away from the classic theater conventions annexed by films. Turnabout being fair play, they’ve theatricalized film techniques and genres to come up with something all their own.
Baker’s The Flick is a virtuosic example of naturalism. But it’s also a high-concept exploration of the push-me-pull-you relationship between film and theater. Collegiate movie nerd Avery learns how things work behind the screen at the Flick, a movie theater in Worcester County, Massachusetts. His teachers are the 35-year-old, longtime attendant Sam and 29-year-old projectionist Rose. The plot is minimal and the running time is maximal, giving director Sam Gold room to exhibit how theater can match film’s vaunted prowess at exhibiting the flicker of feeling crossing someone’s face.
With blunt force, David Zinn’s set places the Flick’s auditorium head on. When perched in the movie theater’s seats, the actors face us, giving open access to their shifting emotions. Matthew Maher’s Sam pines for Louisa Krause’s Rose, but he can’t look her in the eye. He’d rather stare at the screen, where he can focus safely on his mind’s eye view of her. Rose implores him to look at her, the real her, standing right behind him, and his long, failed attempt at turning around is this theater season’s most heartbreaking and hilarious moment.
If this scene were filmed, the director would probably cut from a two shot to a close-up of Sam. Gold uses stillness, body position, lighting, and stage design to focus our attention on a face, approximating the impact of a close-up within the “widescreen” of the proscenium. The lack of physical magnification is countered by the enhanced chemical response we get from live people experiencing live emotions in our presence.
When Rose invites Aaron Clifton Moten’s Avery, and later Sam, up to the projection booth, the production suggests a blissfully perverse combination of long and tight shots. There’s no change of scenery. We take in the entire set, but the only visual stimulation comes from seeing just part of each man’s face through a tiny opening high up in the wall, where the projectionist can look out to check the image. These scenes are also an ode to silent movies, since they’re too far away, and behind invisible glass, to hear anything. The men’s victory is shown in context, tiny in the grand scheme of things yet emotionally intimate and vivid.
Not everything serves as a meta compare-and-contrast between media forms. Purely kinetic pleasures are on offer, like the ecstatic hip-hop dance Rose performs to seduce Avery. He, too, can’t look at her and admits he’d rather be watching a movie. Their mutual shame, especially Moten’s series of postures which end with his head in his hands, is as precise as choreography.
This combination of rigorous observation with exacto-sharp execution flows through each tightly controlled second of performance and design, including Jane Cox’s remarkably varied lighting, Bray Poor’s sound, and Zinn’s costumes. It’s all hyper-naturalism in high style.
Epic intentions are announced from the start, with a two-minute overture of Bernard Herrmann’s The Naked and the Dead score that plays as the projector shines blinding light through the darkened cinema auditorium into ours. When the Flick’s lights come up, Sam slams the doors open, holding his broom and ushering newbie Avery into the rules and responsibilities of being an attendant. You could lose your lunch as you plummet from the sweeping Hollywood grandeur to the lowly work of pushing a broom across row after row.
Baker and Gold don’t ask us just to recognize the deadening grind of menial labor; they want us to experience it. In that regard, The Flick follows the example of Franz Xaver Kroetz’s monodrama Request Concert, in which a woman comes home from work, does her nightly rituals, finishes a needlepoint project, then swallows a vial of pills and waits. In scope, it recalls Jeanne Dielman. In Chantal Akerman’s film, Delphine’s Seyrig’s Jeanne keeps house over three days, repeating her cooking and cleaning rituals in full. But Akerman spices things up by giving Jeanne a secret life as a prostitute. When she has an orgasm with a john, she kills him.
In contrast to both predecessors, The Flick rejects big climaxes. Nothing distracts from the three characters, inhabited by actors who are scrupulously honest playing characters who often fall short in that department. She and Gold lavish as much as attention and time on the trio as Francis Ford Coppola does on the Corleones in The Godfather and Stanley Kubrick does on Spartacus. I believe the play could stand being a bit shorter without losing impact, but with work this accomplished, I’ll give the creators the benefit of the doubt.
The Flick has a sense of mission, and valediction, about it. Baker and Gold draw layered analogies between the endangered phenomena of old-school film exhibition, challenging theater, and personal integrity. They make a convincing case that, with the right kind of focus, everyone, no matter their outsider status or limited prospects, is as funny and moving as any screen legend.
Amy Herzog sets herself a similar goal in Belleville, but with very different means. Like Baker, her dialogue flows un-self-consciously, without exposed exposition or laugh lines. Both have consummate craft, tying everything in without overt tidiness. But in almost direct opposition to The Flick, Belleville traffics in a genre that was ceded long ago to movies: the psychological thriller. But it’s still character revelation that Herzog’s after.
Abby (Maria Dizzia) and Zack (Greg Keller), young American newlyweds abroad, would make rare subjects for a film. Neither invites ready identification. Abby’s needy. Zack’s foggy. She’s a daddy’s girl who’s pissed off at Zack for screwing up their visa application. Now they can’t go home for Christmas. A yoga instructor who doesn’t exactly give off a relaxing vibe, especially now that she’s off her meds, Abby enters their Paris apartment unexpectedly when an afternoon class is canceled due to minimal attendance. She barges in on Zack, who should be out at his Doctors Without Borders job, masturbating to Internet porn.
We’ve seen this before treated as comedy. It’s certainly funny here at first, but Herzog uses it as an opening to explore increasingly unsettling fissures in Abby and Zack’s relationship. The sense of continuity, provided by live actors moving through real space and time, brings an ease to tonal shifts that would more likely jar on film.
Belleville’s got implausibilities and thinly drawn supporting roles. But it solves the basic requirement of any good psychological thriller—an underlying emotional imbalance. In Rosemary’s Baby, it’s a pregnant woman’s fear of what’s growing inside her; Suspicion has a newlywed’s fear of her husband’s true nature; and a young woman’s fear of her own sexuality fuels Repulsion. Here it’s a dread of intimacy.
Anne Kaufman’s production gets under the skin, and the multiple doors in Julia C. Lee’s scenic design stand near each other at oblique angles. The cramped closeness toes the line where the real bleeds into the subjective, and the same goes for the radiator hisses and other emotive apartment noises in Robert Kaplowitz’s sound design.
The actors’ skin is exposed in ways that emphasize their—and their characters’—vulnerability. Few of Abby and Zack’s actions make us root for their relationship, but their attempt at make-up sex is a helpful exception. Abby disrobes Zack so that he stands inches away from her, with his back to us. Keller’s trust in Dizzia helps us believe in the couple’s viability.
Toward the end, when we fear for Abby’s safety, she’s clad only in a towel which keeps falling in dribs that keep things from getting drab. In a film, multiple takes and setups lend a sense of premeditation that can make moments like these seem exploitive. Here, the live connection between the impressively grounded actors helps keep the focus on the risk we take when we open ourselves up to other people.
Herzog knows her way around the genre basics. The 90 minutes without a break keeps the emotional lines taut. Zack is under tremendous pressure. He has two days to come up with four months of back rent, which Abby believes he’s already paid. His lies aren’t built to last. A large, sharp kitchen knife makes some early appearances. What eventually hangs in the balance is whether the violence will be murderous or self-inflicted.
With this and other recent plays like After the Revolution and 4000 Miles, a 2013 Pulitzer Prize finalist, Herzog achieves a felicitous balance between the personal and political. Zack and Abby seem representative of an American generation, born in the Reagan era, that’s been hobbled by infantilization. She incisively finds the horror in a woman who can’t break the stranglehold of family ties and a man who implodes under expectations set precipitously high.
Paul Downs Colazzo’s Really Really is even less sympathetic to the college-age “Selfish Generation.” Like Baker and Herzog, he decries a society-wide honesty shortage. His characters don’t even try to be truthful, with others or themselves.
Its opening minute pinpoints the current moment in time. Leigh (Zosia Mamet), drunkenly trundles into her apartment as she checks her iPhone, then checks it again seconds later, and again and again, all with the same result: “No message.” When she manages to sit on her couch, she says, almost as an afterthought, “Ow.”
As Really Really tries to trace the source of her pain, the play becomes a whodunwhat. She claims she was raped by the college’s star athlete at a keg party. Davis (Matt Lauria) was so drunk he doesn’t remember what happened. Their friends, two of whom were listening at his bedroom door, pick whichever side best serves their self-interest.
David Cromer’s pulse-quickening production, befitting the hormonal characters, is amped to the max. David Korins’s set spins a portal around to mark the multiple shifts from Leigh’s to Davis’s living room. Each time, the portal and the furniture are placed at a different angle from before to connote a change in perspective. It’s a perfect way to show a world where everything’s relative, including the truth.
Galvanic twists and turns dominate the plot as much as in any topical film thriller. Early on, Davis is characterized by his roommate, Cooper (David Hull), as “nice and I don’t mean that in a good way.” But act one ends with an “aha” blackout after Davis violently knocks the roommate down. By the middle of the second act, the revelations are so plentiful and damning, they seem determined more by playwright fiat than character. We begin to realize Really Really is a mystery whose solution is a plague on an entire generation’s house.
If this went from stage to screen, Colazzo would probably be forced to answer the central narrative question more concretely. That wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. But Mamet’s haunting performance satisfies as is. She makes us face the awful truth about a young woman’s determination to wring advantage from any situation, including the possibility of her own rape.
Colazzo’s talent for explosively funny dialogue and tensely combustive situations would translate well to film. The same applies to Herzog and Baker’s gift for multi-dimensional characters and dialogue that resonates subtly with deeper themes. Here’s hoping they stay rooted in theater. All three are the real deal.