Annie Baker’s plays unfold slowly. We get to know characters gradually, with small revelations spread out over time. We wait and watch while nothing important seems to be happening. But unlike the stream of events in our ordinary lives, the plays are very carefully plotted. What happens at the end of has been carefully set up at the beginning. And because of Baker’s almost invisible but careful selectivity, the characters’ interactions may revolve around a single theme. In The Flick, that theme is betrayal.
Baker is famous for her dialogue, which reveals the hollowness of most playwrights’ claims to be representing “natural speech.” Real conversation is rarely the back-and-forth exchange of one liners that prevails in theater today. Annie Baker told an interviewer that she used to record conversations on tape and transcribe them, learning the rhythms of cryptic comments, rants, and pauses.
But what moves me most about the way characters speak in Baker’s play, is what they do not say. Annie Baker—more than any playwright I know—writes scenes in the style of Chekhov. “Subtext” has become a major topic in playwriting seminars, but few writers have mastered it as Chekhov did. Baker’s people have big, important things that they need to say to each other, and we strain to listen as they talk about something else, something trivial, as Chekhov’s characters do. For example, in Uncle Vanya, Vanya’s relationship with his friend the doctor has been strained to the breaking point. The doctor will not be visiting again. They talk about the weather. The two young men in “The Flick” have reason to be angry at each other and an urge to forgive each other. After an almost unbearably long pause, they play one more game of “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.”
I was not surprised to discover that Baker wrote an adaptation of Uncle Vanya. Baker told an interviewer:
[Chekhov] taught me a lot about offstage action, offstage characters, and how important it is to have dialogue that does not appear to forward the plot. His characters are spontaneous and strange and do things we wouldn’t expect them to do and yet they also never really change.
Those comments explain some of what Baker does in plays like The Flick. Her playwriting runs counter to many current “rules” for theater. But if a viewer can be patient, the effect is spell-binding.