Mad Cat Theatre's The Flick Explores the Waning Days of Film

Film died and nobody cared.

It was a deliberate, efficient, cancerous sort of death. George Lucas planted the first tumor in 2002 when he shot Star Wars: Episode II digitally, but the disease didn't begin to infect the more than 39,000 cinemas in the United States until 2010. The digital conversion, which began one multiplex auditorium at a time, quickly took over the gleaming chain theaters, then the crumbling independent five-plexes with the creaking chairs, then — God help us — the single-screen arthouses.

By mid-2013, the invasion was complete, and the moviegoing public, most of it unable to discern a 35mm film print from its sterile replica, collectively shrugged. It took more than half a century to build up film as the gold standard of movie exhibition and four years to dismantle it, with only trade journals and fetishists left to write its obituary.

I was one of the last holdouts. During this excruciating process, I refused to pay to see a movie digitally, sometimes driving miles out of my way to visit the few South Florida cinemas that still projected film, knowing that the celluloid resistance would not overcome the march of progress.

This sense of elegiac melancholy is captured — exquisitely, comically, painfully — in Mad Cat's production of Annie Baker's Pulitzer Prize-winning magnum opus The Flick, a love letter to film if ever one existed. The play is set in a rundown single-screen 35mm cinema in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 2012, its digital conversion not a matter of if, but when.

The Flick is the sort of work that's written for you and nobody else.

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The Flick runs three hours and spans about six months of time in the lives of a trio of theater employees. They spend most of the play engaging in the drudgery of cleanup after the night's final screening, chatting passionately about movies, and, for its newly hired cinephile usher Avery (an exceptional Chevi Marquise Hill), trying to prevent the impending digital bulldozer.

Avery, whose sexuality is a territory yet to be explored, is somewhat infatuated with Sam (David Nail), the older, intensely private head usher. Sam is oblivious to Avery's affections, because emotions aren't really his thing. He has yet to come to terms with his feelings for Rose (Jessica Farr), the theater's projectionist, whose carefree mien masks her own brand of romantic dysfunction. When her attraction to Avery becomes evident, the makings are in place for a cinematic love triangle of mutual disappointment.

Some audience members will undoubtedly find all of this an enormous waste of time, which is always a risk when staging trailblazing art. For others, The Flick will strike notes of such profound personal resonance that it will feel like the defining play of its time, the sort of work that's written for you and nobody else.

What for some might seem like the quotidian business of movie exhibition is only the starting point for wider reflections on a lost generation that languishes in a purgatorial ellipsis — the dilapidated movie theater doubling as a way station between lives. Baker addresses the transition from film to digital in terms both literal and metaphoric. The realness of film and phoniness of digital speak to the characters' repeated references to their own authenticity and fakeness as they flounder, clique-lessly, from day to day.

"What do you want to, like, be when you grow up?" Avery asks the fully grown Sam, for whom cleaning popcorn and soda from sticky floors is hardly a starter job. Later, Avery, in confessing his clinical depression to Rose, repeats the mantra he has heard time and again from well-meaning peers: "The answer is always 'be yourself,' and I have no idea what that means."

Since Baker became one of the most-produced playwrights in America (Area Stage is expected to produce her Circle Mirror Transformation in September), much has been written about her unparalleled naturalism. Her characters speak like real people, with likes and ums and false starts and self-corrections, and they know when not to speak: She eschews the hour-and-40-minute dictates of modern playwriting for the unhurried pace of life, with its awkward silences. So it takes a director grooving to Baker's beat to make any of her plays work, and Paul Tei is perfectly synchronized with her style.

There is never an impression that you're watching a play. There is never any Acting in the acting, though Hill's performance, in its raw fragility, most uniquely conveys what it means to be an emotionally displaced human. There isn't even a set: In a shrewd reversal of protocol, the action takes place among the 120 seats of the Miami Theater Center, with the audience watching from the venue's stage. The characters' bathrooms and exit doors are also ours; the fictional and real worlds become one, with Tei treating the space like his own CinemaScope canvas, letting our eyes wander wherever they choose. We are liberated eavesdroppers, free to glean what we will from a seemingly effortless accretion of banalities/profundities.

All of the scenes end with music, some of it assigned by the script — iconic scores from Jules and Jim and Manhattan, for instance — and others wittily selected by Tei and sound designer Rich Szczublewski. James' "Laid" ironically follows a humiliating sexual advance, and Buzzcocks' "Why Can't I Touch It" furthers a deft moment of levity late in the play.

The best selection of all encapsulates the characters' states of mind as they spool film reels soon to be extinct, dutifully ushering oblivion one swept popcorn kernel at a time: Neil Young's "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere." Let other playwrights offer a vision of somewhere; I, for one, never want to leave the void.

The Flick
Through June 12, presented by Mad Cat at Miami Theater Center, 9806 NE Second Ave., Miami Shores; 305-751-9550; Tickets cost $15 to $30.

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John Thomason