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Two weeks ago, the New York Times’ theater-critic-in-chief Ben Brantley wrote orgasmically of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s play Hamilton: “I am loath to tell people to mortgage their houses and lease their children to acquire tickets to a hit Broadway show. But ‘Hamilton’ … might just about be worth it.”
We saw Hamilton — which follows its namesake, Alexander Hamilton (and Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography), from poverty to power in the young USA — at the Public Theater (it’s now on Broadway) back in February, and we thought it did a lot of things well. Seeing founding fathers Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison, et. al. rap about their badass plans to create a new country where they could do whatever the fuck they wanted not only brought home the oft-forgotten point that the United States of America, like most modern nation-states, was born in a seething cauldron of testosterone (so why do we deify the “founding fathers?”), but also indicated bold new possibilities for the American musical, such as writing music that sounds like something you might hear on the radio, or in a club, in 2015. What bothered us was the net effect: despite (or because of) the tragic dimension of Hamilton’s story — which resembles those endlessly replicated narratives of assertive rappers gunned down by bitter rivals, from which Miranda draws much inspiration — it ends up offering merely a new way of romanticizing the founding fathers, now as (in Brantley’s words) “rebellious sons, moving to a new, fierce, liberating beat.”
There’s no doubt that romanticism, aided by hypermasculine pyrotechnics and abetted by the New York Times, sells. A ticket to see Hamilton tomorrow will set you back at least $320 (from a third-party seller); a ticket for September 1 (also third-party; it’s sold out for the foreseeable future) will cost almost $300. Meanwhile, two plays by Annie Baker are also currently running in New York (Off-Broadway). They were also favorably — although somewhat ploddingly — reviewed by the Times, in this case by Brantley’s lieutenant, Charles Isherwood. You might consider them antidotes of a sort to the Hamilton hype, and fittingly, they are much cheaper. You can see The Flick tomorrow at the Barrow Street Theatre for $107 and John on September 1 at Signature Theatre for as little as $35 — almost a tenth of the cost of Hamilton.
Baker’s style could not be more different from that of Hamilton: her plays are long, light on plot, spoken not sung, full of lengthy pauses. In Baker’s world, women, not men, tend to occupy the positions of power, and that power is modest, almost domestic: Rose (Louisa Krause) runs the projector room of a tiny suburban movie theater in The Flick; Kitty (Georgia Engel) runs a quaint Gettysburg bed-and-breakfast in John. Instead of muskets and sabers, one sees a lot of brooms and dustpans, cell phones, dolls, tchotchkes.
Baker’s works probe, or perhaps caress, the fine texture of human relationships, and they make a compelling case that the devil is indeed in the details. Watching The Flick is a bit like watching hidden camera footage of people at work. Again and again, Sam, the longtime employee (played by the vulnerable and brilliantly funny Matthew Maher) and Avery, the new guy (a brooding, emotionally uptight Aaron Clifton Moten), chat about movies, workplace politics, and family, while sweeping up the detritus left in the aisles after screenings. Their fledgling friendship is strained when Rose shows both a professional and (unrequited) sexual preference for Avery over Sam, her self-pitying admirer. The decisive conflict arises in response to a new owner’s plan to replace the theater’s old film projector with a digital system. Avery, whose primary passion is film, feels this is immoral and mounts a resistance that ultimately costs him his job; Sam and Rose, more committed to keeping their jobs than to supporting a dying artistic medium, passively betray him.
John also looks at small business and deception, but from different angles. Jenny (Hong Chau) and Elias (Christopher Abbott), a young couple who have been dating for some time and nearly broke up recently because Jenny had an affair with a man named John, decide to spend a few days in a quaint bed-and-breakfast in Gettysburg on their way back home to Brooklyn. The tree lavishly decorated with tiny ornaments suggests that it’s Christmastime, but one gets the impression that at Kitty’s place, the tchotchkes — glowing figurines filling the bookcase, dolls piled up along the edge of the staircase (enough “tiny things,” Elias says sardonically, to induce “a Jenny Chung orgasm”) — stay up yearround. The spry but elderly Kitty is a somewhat senile optimist, an evangelist for the dubious diet her doctor has prescribed and a “Neo-Platonist” (her words) with a mysterious husband named George whose existence Elias questions. Kitty’s blind best friend, Genevieve, is a mordant pessimist who will not speak at length except to describe in prophetic tones the long, revelatory period of insanity she suffered after divorcing her husband, John. In Kitty’s old house, which seems to have “a life of its own,” Jenny and Elias tell each other stories to ward off their demons, but those demons emerge nevertheless, gradually and inevitably.
The set design of both productions (by David Zinn for The Flick, Mimi Lien for John) is exquisite and plays as important a role as the actors — for both plays are about place, space, and objects as much as they are about people. At the end of The Flick, Avery leaves town with the film projector he loved more than either of his co-workers. In John, Jenny talks at length of having felt, as a child, watched and judged by her dolls, while Genevieve praises Kitty for taking good care of her “matter” and, at the climactic moment, Elias threatens to destroy part of that matter (a doll) unless Jenny gives him her cell phone. How do people’s worldviews affect the way they act in and towards their physical environments? How do physical environments shape people’s relationships with each other? And how do people’s relationships with each other affect their object-filled surroundings? Annie Baker and Sam Gold, who directs both plays, together with everyone else involved in both productions, treat such questions with deep intelligence, sensitivity, humor, and dramatic flair. For our money, their answers are more valuable than what Hamilton has to offer.
See all three shows if you can — mortgage the house and sell the kids if you want. But if you would rather keep your house and kids (or don’t have either), and if you’re looking for a bargain, Baker is hard to beat.
Hamilton continues at the Richard Rodgers Theatre (226 W 46th Street, Times Square, Manhattan) through June 4, 2016. John continues at Signature Theatre (480 W 42nd Street, Times Square, Manhattan) through September 6. The Flick continues at the Barrow Street Theatre (27 Barrow Street, West Village, Manhattan) through January 10, 2016.
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