A quote I often find myself recalling comes from the sociologist Erving Goffman: “Nothing exists like another person for bringing alive the world within oneself.” Goffman, whose writings greatly influenced some key theater figures of the 1960s, including the director Joseph Chaikin, particularly relished the theater because he viewed reality as, in part, a mode of performance. His seminal work, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, shows how anyone’s daily routine can be analyzed as a series of roles, each with its own pre-scripted demands and expectations. Yet life never becomes a string of predictable exchanges, Goffman explains, because each of us perceives those demands and expectations differently. Human encounters are, on the whole, standardized; human beings remain a constant surprise.
This applies, in the theater, not only to whoever accompanies you there—spouse, date, friend, relative—but to the people you go there expressly to meet: the characters, the performers, or both. The appeal of seeing stars in person is eternal, as well as profitable, but the people whom playwrights invent are the ones who give the theater its reason for existing.
Nothing, as Goffman’s quote suggests, supplies more exhilaration than meeting new people, fresh from the playwright’s hand. In two theater visits this week, I met five delightful people. Two, I grant you, were old friends freshly reanimated. But sitting down to get reacquainted with them, after a long absence, was every bit as delightful as getting to know someone wholly new.
Let’s start with the total newcomers, because I think that, in our brief acquaintance, I’ve come to love them almost as much as their author clearly does. Annie Baker’s The Flick (Playwrights Horizons) is set in a grungy singleplex New England movie theater, where a staff of three handles ticket sales, refreshments, and projection (it’s 2012, and the place hasn’t gone digital yet) as well as sweeping up the littered popcorn and candy wrappers after every showing. Feisty, funky Rose (Louisa Krause) runs the 35mm projector; Sam (Matthew Maher) and the just-hired Avery (Aaron Clifton Moten) do the rest. Most of the play consists of laconic exchanges between Sam and Avery as they cope with spilled soda, half-eaten sandwiches, and other, stranger messes patrons leave behind. As time passes, they also have to confront their mixed feelings about themselves and each other, about their heedless, always-absent boss, and about two subjects that prey on both their minds: movies and Rose.
Yes, it’s a triangle of sorts. But Baker knows her people too thoroughly to oversimplify them. It’s hard to imagine a triangle in which the three characters’ doubts, backstories, and confusions could twist a geometric form’s three simple lines into such eccentric shapes. Baker and her director, Sam Gold, let the scenes happen in an approximation of real time, the unhurried pace of which has provoked startling expostulations of fury on theater message boards. It’s ironic: The expostulators, quite possibly older theatergoers, want the playwright to supply louder-faster-funnier instant results. Baker, a playwright of the youngest generation (and clearly one who grew up steeped in movies and movie references), believes in the stage as a place where things take their natural time. In a different play, she’d undoubtedly employ stage shorthand without a qualm, but this one’s all about the work the two men do: Every square inch of popcorn they sweep up is a precious minute in their disjunctive, perplexed lives.
Baker’s sparse, quiet text, filled with informative silences, shows each of these mismatched lives fully, while using each to cast a sharp light on bigger issues. Movie culture, in which all three are variously versed, takes on something like its actual weight for us, less a set of historical allusions and memories than a sort of spiritual bloodstream—an additional culture, running parallel to the experience of our daily lives, driven by a pulsating passion that can absorb anything from Andrei Rublev to Pauly Shore. Gold immaculately handles cinema’s presence in this drab reality, abetted by David Zinn’s enchantingly shabby set. And Gold’s cast is utterly in tune at every moment. Maher, who has played many things besides rust-belt losers, makes Sam’s loserness almost transcendent. Moten invests the idealistic Avery with a hangdog hopefulness that speaks, onstage, the way the great close-ups in Griffith or Dreyer speak on film.
The two old friends I spoke of earlier make up the notoriously mismatched couple of Lanford Wilson’s 1980 Pulitzer Prize–winner, Talley’s Folly (Laura Pels Theatre). It’s 1944. Sally Talley (Sarah Paulson) is the intelligent, unhappy, not-yet-married daughter of the well-heeled family that runs a Missouri factory town. Her suitor, Matt Friedman (Danny Burstein), is everything her family loathes: a big-city leftist Jew, over 40 and bearded, with oy-vey inflections and a cynical sense of humor.
Sally herself isn’t sure about marrying Matt either. He’s come down, risking her family’s ire, because he has a secret to confide before he can pop the question. She has one too, it turns out, but won’t share it. They hash the matter out in the titular “folly,” an ornate Victorian boathouse, now crumbling, that was built by Sally’s great-uncle, a frustrated architect. It’s a romantic setting gone comically askew.
Frustrated hopes, as often in Wilson, play a large part in the story, though we can easily predict that at least one will be fulfilled: Matt, playing host, invites us to think of the piece as a “valentine” and a “waltz.” Wilson dodges the implied sentimentality by filling the couple’s intense cat-and-mouse game with all the dark matters of the time: the war, the Holocaust, the Depression, huge political upheavals and heinous economic corruptions, plus a litany of personal betrayals and deceits. Matt and Sally are linked because they’re both virtual magnets for the modern world’s suffering.
Burstein and Paulson, under Michael Wilson’s direction, give the characters more heartfelt connections than their mutual share in the world’ misery. With their high-contrast body language they paint the kinds of opposites who attract, while at the same time working technically in intriguingly opposite ways. He elegantly balances inner grief with warm, showy flamboyance, while she digs deeper and deeper inward, till her emotions explode out at the climax. Their resistance to the bond they forge provides half its charm. Wilson needs the ungainly, half-comical magic their pairing brings: His boathouse, designed by Jeff Cowie, lacks the haunted whimsicality the place requires. In John Lee Beatty’s design for the original production, to see the boathouse was itself like meeting one more new person.