The advent of photography, or so the conventional wisdom goes, rendered realism in painting obsolete, freeing up artists to invent Impressionism, Cubism and Abstract Expressionism. And the same logic would seem to apply to the theater. Onstage realism (or naturalism, more accurately) is pointless because a play can never feel as “real” as a movie.
Well, somebody forget to tell Annie Baker. While other contemporary playwrights, such as Sarah Ruhl, were exploring new ways to exploit the constructed nature of theatricality, Baker doubled down on naturalism with “The Flick,” a slice of life set at a dilapidated movie house that ran for three hours, thanks to extended sequences in which the characters did little more than sweep up stale popcorn.
“The Flick’s” world premiere in New York sent at least a few disgruntled theatergoers to the exits early in 2013, prompting a non-apology apology from Playwrights Horizons. But Baker wasn’t the only one who didn’t get the memo on naturalism. Later that year, her play got its second-ever production from director Ron May’s Stray Cat Theatre — and in 2014 it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Stray Cat is also the first theater outside New York to pick up Baker’s latest opus, titled “John.” It has a lot in common with “The Flick,” including its three-hour running time and its slim chances of selling out performances in Tempe. It’s also challenging, provocative, enigmatic and maybe even brilliant.