Gen Y’s production of The Flick brings an unconventional script to life

Orlando is the undisputed American capital of themed entertainment, but when it comes to more traditional theater, we are often disparaged in comparison to bigger cities. I've battled with outsiders, insiders and even myself over the alleged inferiority of our local theatrical community's output versus "professional" out-of-town productions. It's a problem that I anticipated would only accelerate with the opening of the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, as well-funded tours siphon disposable dollars away from home-grown efforts. While it's still too soon to say my fears were unfounded, I've recently seen encouraging signs that Orlando's local theater can not only comfortably co-exist with our recent influx of road companies, but can even outshine them.

First, don't let the marketing fool you: Just because the ticket says "Broadway Series" and you're nearly paying New York prices doesn't mean what you're watching is Great White Way-worthy. While Fairwinds always brings a couple of recent hits to town (next season's headliners will be Beautiful and Kinky Boots), there are also a couple of clunkers, usually identifiable by the lack of Actor's Equity union coverage for the cast. Such was the case in last month's Anything Goes, which was so exhausted it inspired me to forgo my review and flee at intermission.

For a fraction of what those seats went for, you might have seen GOAT and Baggy Pants Theater's spectacular sold-out co-production of In the Heights at Shakes. I was out of town until closing weekend and unable to write a review, but director Paul Castaneda and his huge cast of vets (Desiree Perez, Leesa Castaneda, Ana Bateman) and fresh faces (Matthew Roman, Erick Ariel Sureda) made me appreciate Lin-Manuel Miranda's rap musical more than the original Broadway touring company could.

Or if you missed that, you could visit the cozy Alexis and Jim Pugh Theater, where Gen Y and Artful Events are presenting Annie Baker's The Flick as the Center's first fully staged, locally produced production. The Flick is currently enjoying a well-reviewed Off-Broadway revival, but I can't imagine the New York version exceeding Orlando's, which brings this unconventional script to life with exceptional performances and observant direction.

Avery (Marcellis Cutler), a film freak home from college for the summer, finds a menial summer job sweeping up popcorn in a failing one-screen movie theater. Sam (Daniel Cooksley), a gruffly genial Red Sox fan with limited career prospects, shows Avery the janitorial ropes and introduces him to Rose (Jessica Hope Grossman), a projectionist with Joker-green hair and baggy black clothes that belie her bruised inner beauty. The trio is quickly bonded by both crime (a petty scheme to defraud their douchebag boss out of a few extra bucks each shift) and romance (in the form of an awkwardly unrequited love triangle) as the fate of the theater's aging celluloid projector – and, by extension, the struggle of analog culture to survive in the face of a digital future – hangs in the balance.

That's a perfect sitcom-style setup for a breezy evening of snappy repartee, but Baker's script bravely takes the exact opposite approach by attempting to accurately capture how real people try, and frequently fail, to communicate. The script must have more dashes and ellipses than actual words, since characters never seem to straightforwardly say what they mean, or even complete a sentence. While there are some wonderful monologues and moments of devastating dialogue, the strongest moments are in the agonizing silences, waiting for someone to express crucial words that never come.

It takes a special kind of creative team to see the theatrical potential in something that seems flat and inconsequential on the page, so producer Aaron Safer and director Kenny Howard should be commended for having faith that Orlando audiences are willing to be challenged by a play like this. With no flashy gimmicks to fall back on, the superb cast must employ subtle active-listening skills to supply their characters with the needed naturalism. And Bonnie Sprung's props and set are so spot-on – from the felt walls to the grungy seats (rescued from Theatre Downtown) – that the floor almost feels sticky.

I'll admit to having the same mixed reaction that many had when The Flick premiered at Playwrights Horizon in 2013. I loved the play from moment to moment, but ultimately I question whether it really needs three hours to tell such a low-stakes story. I wouldn't want Howard to rush his cast through any of the essential pauses, as Cooksley's epic stillness at the end is one of the most thrillingly disciplined pieces of acting I've ever seen in Orlando. But a touch of trimming in the first act's doughy middle and some tightening of the too-long scene transitions throughout would help the pacing feel a bit less plodding – though I suppose it's appropriately enervating for a circular slice-of-life about dead-end employment.

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