The Flick: Three existential crises walk into a movie theater. John Ulman

The Flick, Annie Baker's new, Pulitzer Prize–winning play about three employees at a run-down movie theater, owes a lot to October of 1994: a watershed moment in the history of American workplace conversation. That month, the movies Pulp Fiction and Clerks opened within five days of each other and became fast classics. Though one made $213.9 million and the other only $3.2 million, they stylized the way people talk to each other when they're on the clock—humorous, roundabout, banal—with a force that still influences what coworkers sound like in scripts and screenplays today.

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The Flick extends this lineage, plunging us directly into its butter-scented workplace: a theater with spilled popcorn all over the floor where three coworkers' relationships collide and corrode during intervals between film screenings. The audience sits where the screen would be, looking at a few rows of beat-up movie-theater seats and the projectionist's window far upstage where Rose—26, white, and a little surly—can hide from the other two or nap when she has a hangover. Sad-sack Sam is 35, white, and has been working at the theater longer than he'd like. (He also has a crush on Rose, which complicates matters.) Avery is 20, black, and taking a break from the college where his father teaches semiotics. The importance of their ethnicities waxes and wanes as The Flick progresses, but a racial subtext often hangs just beneath the surface of their conversations, and only occasionally surfaces. Avery, who has just started, suspects the movie-theater owner "didn't really want to hire a black kid anyway," which complicates his reaction to the light embezzling scheme Rose and Sam engage in.

Avery is hyperintelligent with nearly perfect film recall—he dazzles Sam with his ability to play the six degrees of separation game—but is fundamentally afraid of the world. He's also a cinephile and evangelizes against the menace of digital filmmaking, which for him is beyond an oxymoron: It's "immoral." (In another sign of The Flick's contemporaneity, its treatment of the shift from celluloid to digital resonates with debates going on in other workplaces—including newsrooms, which are painfully torn between old-school, print-and-shoe-leather habits and newer, more frenetic blogging-and-social-media compulsions.) Avery's savvy sets him apart from Sam and Rose—but they all know he's something of a tourist. He can imagine a future back in college while they seem to be at a dead end.

Playwright Baker takes her time letting us get to know this trio. The script is 126 pages long and averages three written pauses per page. (Sam and Avery sweep a lot of popcorn.) Like any minimum-wage work shift, The Flick can feel long and occasionally wearying, but the deliberate pace allows the moments of comedy and poignancy to land that much harder—a riff on Beckett, with butter. In one scene, Sam and Avery debate whether it's worse for patrons to spill food they've bought at the theater or food they've smuggled in (Avery takes the former view, arguing "with the Sun Chips, it's like... it's just regular litter"). Then Sam finds a foul-smelling shoe. Then Avery asks an unintentionally devastating question: "What do you wanna, like, be when you grow up?" Pause. "I am grown up," Sam replies. "That's like the most depressing thing anyone's ever said to me." Then they keep sweeping.

The small ensemble (Tyler Trerise as Avery, Sam Hagen as Sam, and Emily Chisholm as Rose, with Spencer Hamp in two bit parts) performs in a gorgeous harmony, finding grace notes in the muted tedium of their shifts. Hagen unearths the desperation beneath his character's good-natured front, and Trerise has a gift for cracking his voice when Avery finds himself unnerved but trying to hide it. And Chisholm owns the stage as Rose, flummoxing the two men by flirting through her scowl and sneaking morsels of compassion through the bars of her sarcasm.

After one particularly awkward moment, Rose says to Avery, "There's something wrong with me." He replies balefully, "No, there's something wrong with me." Though The Flick is nearly three hours long, that's it in a nutshell. Like many, many coworkers, the three are alienated but deeply bonded—together in the anomie. recommended