Over three hours into Annie Baker's Pulitzer
Prize-winning comment on the everyday existence of the everyman,
It weaves you in, transfixes you and won't let go of you unless you take your eyes away and remove yourself
Set in the auditorium of one of the last remaining 35mm projection cinemas in Massachusetts (in 2012, on the cusp of the switch to digital), new boy Avery is being taught all the mundane details of the tasks of the job (how to sweep the seats, how to clean the machines, how to make – illicit – extra cash) by veteran 35-year old Sam, as he desperately tries to find value and skill in his dead-end job. As they work – joined by the object of Sam's fascination and unrequited love, Rose (often in the projection room which we can see through a tiny window upstage but can't hear) – they talk (and for long periods of time, don't talk) about... well, just about stuff.
Avery is a film aficionado, there due to his harking for the days of ‘true’ film projection that show how things were made to be seen (rather than on a digital copy) but, as in life, it's mainly the ‘digital veneers’ of themselves that they are most comfortable in displaying (leading to Avery's assertions that “everyone is a stereotype” and “everyone is fake”). Their conversations are filled with unrequired detail that on the surface say nothing, or that stop just before they may reveal too much. Like many of us in the workplace, they have the aching need for social interaction and friendship but are fearful of sharing personal information in case it leads to rejection.
Other than film references (playing Six Degrees of Separation and debating the snobbery attached when deciding what makes a great film – “You pretend not to like Avatar as it didn't have German subtitles”), this isn't a play that requires you to be a film-buff. The real allegory here is that they are all searching for the truth or purpose in their own lives (that the 35mm film version of a movie displays) – each occasionally cracking open the door a little to reveal their true feelings of depression and loneliness. But the characters here are too naturally real to soliloquise for long, so instead discuss the inane and the nothing in hilarious debates that make you laugh heartily in recognition of the importance of the unimportant, whilst sensing the constant bubbling undercurrent of suppression that needs to erupt but never does. Rather it is held in by long periods of closed eyes, of sitting quietly, of never moving far from the wall as though defending against expected attack.
The quiet stillness draws you in to notice every small movement, gesture and facial expression that often say more than the words themselves. As is the case in life. There are pauses within pauses that make an average statement become very funny. The whole theatre becomes deathly silent to echo the environment they create as, depending on your patience or attention span, you either feel hypnotised by the inaction of bored by it. What feels like a warning outside states that the play runs at 3¼ hours – with the interval not until 1¾ hours in – and it's unsurprising that many see this as a slog too hard to endure, with a fair few seats vacated at the interval.
But boring is something that it never is. The understated performances of the cast are filled with nuanced complexity that at times make it more interesting to watch them doing nothing than any exciting visual spectacle. Baker's 'director of choice' Sam Gold has brought two of the original Off-Broadway cast with him and they aren't just under the skin of their characters, they are embodying and displaying their skins. Matthew Maher as Sam creates the majority of laughs through expertly timed pauses and the tiniest of sideways glances (as far away from clichéd eye-rolling as possible), whilst Louisa Krause gives a laconic, drawling, chilled-out delivery to Rose though her face at times seems to be crumbling as though on the edge of (but never actually) showing her lack of self-worth through tears. New cast member Jaygann Ayeh reveals more of his demons than the others as Avery with a subtlety to his delivery that is often moving but never mawkish – as a recent RADA graduate, his skills equally match the others and belie his years.
You can't ignore the fact that the length of this piece is always going to be a part of the discussion of its quality. Yes, it probably is too long for many people and could run at 90 minutes with cuts and a pacier directional style. But – other than the too many, too long spaces in between scenes where we are left with nothing but the flickering of the projector to watch – cuts and pace would arguably lessen the impact that this production has. The story alone that would then be told may be interesting but not as powerful without the insights we get into the characters – and our own minds – that is created by the quiet. Personally my only awareness of the length of time was down to the discomfort caused by sitting for so long and I was surprised when we had reached the interval ‘already’. With no real sound or lighting effects to engage or interrupt us, I was completely absorbed and intently staring at every detail. It weaves you in, transfixes you and won't let go of you unless you take your eyes away and remove yourself.