Time for Plays That Play With Time

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Aaron Clifton Moten and Matthew Maher in The Flick. Photo: Joan Marcus
Aaron Clifton Moten and Matthew Maher in The Flick. Photo: Joan Marcus
Aaron Clifton Moten and Matthew Maher in The Flick. Photo: Joan Marcus

One of the grand theater illusions is the presentation of the elasticity of time.

I bring this up because on two recent consecutive nights I saw the revivals of The Flick and The Sound and the Fury. The first is the Playwrights Horizons production of Annie Baker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, now at the Barrow Street Theatre. The second is Elevator Repair Service’s stage adaption of William Faulkner’s first book in The Sound and the Fury, called April 7, 1928, reprised at the Public Theater.

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Each production, including a single intermission, is approximately three hours, give or take a few minutes. Baker and ERS (via Faulkner) both understand that time sometimes doesn’t speed by. It moves slowly. It weighs on people. Time often takes its own sweet, or bitter, time.

Yet the plays are so irresistibly involving that when each concluded, my sense was that they’d gone in a flash. I felt as if my time watching them was well spent. And I should mention that I’d seen both productions before. I knew what I was letting myself in for, and relished the opportunities.

These accomplishments also occurred in a playwriting climate in which intermissionless, 90-minute works rule. The roiling economy and patrons’ shrinking attention spans increasingly dictate even briefer entries—80 minutes, 75 minutes, 60 minutes. (Not to mention the long trend toward smaller-cast scripts.) Some plays are even shorter than what 50 years ago would have been considered unusually short for a curtain raiser in a two one-act evening.

I should also mention that in a season of so many disappointing 90-or-fewer-minute productions, I frequently found myself looking at my watch 10 or 15 minutes into the play. Yet I hadn’t anything like that impulse at The Flick or The Sound and the Fury. 

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Part of what’s intriguing is that while time is a different commodity in each play, repetition isn’t. Life is often adamantly repetitive and therefore takes up a good deal of time.

The Flick is set in a small Worcester County, Massachusetts movie house where the personnel — cleanup crew Sam (Matthew Maher) and Avery (Aaron Clifton Moten), and projectionist Rose (Louisa Krause) — pass the time when the auditorium is otherwise empty. Their dialogue is what might commonly be described as small talk, although often it’s anything but. For much of the action, it’s spoken as Sam and Avery sweep from row to row where patrons have left things like popcorn in half-empty bags or scattered on the floor.

Sometimes they air resentments. For instance, Sam is angry that Steve, the unseen proprietor, has promoted more recently hired Rose. He’s further upset because he is romantically interested in Rose, who doesn’t return his interest. Every once in a while the characters drop biographical information that eventually add up to a portrait of three lost souls. Sometimes Sam and Avery play a spin on the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” game.

Baker’s achievement is that while other people’s small talk is generally of no appeal to strangers, she builds it into something endlessly enthralling. That she sustains this for three hours is ultimately astonishing. She is immeasurably helped not only by her incomparable cast but by her frequent collaborator, director Sam Gold. In her script, Baker surely asks for the abundant pauses, but it seems as if Gold has encouraged the actors to stretch them to the limit and beyond.

Susie Sokol and company in  The Sound and the Fury. Photo: Paula Court.
Susie Sokol and company in The Sound and the Fury. Photo: Paula Court.

Faulkner, meanwhile, of course took his title from Macbeth’s speech about life being a tale told by an idiot and signifying nothing. The idiot here is mentally challenged Benjy (born Maury) Compson, played by supple Susie Sokol in ERS’ verbatim treatment of the novel.

And verbatim does mean verbatim. All the dialogue Benjy hears (he never speaks) is repeated by the actors, along with every “he said” and “she said.” Sometimes they’re uttered by someone reading from a worn copy of the novel. Sometimes they’re spoken by the character who said whatever they said.

The result of hearing “he said” and “she said” so regularly is that the repetition establishes a rhythm. It adds to the texture of time moving at an unaltered pace for Benjy. It’s quickly set up that because of his infirmities he operates as a recording device, taking in everything happening around him during a period from 1904 to 1928 but without the capacity to differentiate the relative importance of anything.

While the depicted lives of the Compsons, and the Gibson family that serves them, signify something ineffably moving, for Benjy they signify little or nothing. Events are garbled in Benjy’s telling, so chronological order has little meaning.

Under ERS co-founder John Collins’s direction, the brilliance of this representation is that not only are the events garbled as Faulkner originally wrote them, but so are the characters. A reader may fix images for the Compsons and Gibsons, but on stage, all but two players—Sokol and Tory Vazquez—switch off in several roles. (At the performance I saw Pete Simpson played the older Benjy; Aaron Landsman plays the role at other performances.)

The extent to which this setup embellishes Faulkner’s narrative is inestimable. It certainly does magnify the sound and fury as mother Catherine Compson languishes; as son Quentin grows up to take his life; as Dilsey sees conscientiously to the family needs; as Versh and T.P. and Luster look after Benjy; as the headstrong Quentin defies family codes; and as any number of additional plot twists arise. (The busy, flexible ensemble also features Daphne Gaines, Rosie Goldenshon, Maggie Hoffman, Mike Iveson, Vin Knight, Ben Miles, Randolph Curtis Rand, Greig Sargeant, Kaneza Schaal, and Ben Jalosa Williams.)

The Flick and The Sound and the Fury each demonstrate an old truth: It can take time to get things right, and that taking the time to get things right often means that time does fly.