An impoverishment of language, social skills and empathy, characterises the relationships of three young colleagues who work at a cinema still showing reel-to-reel films.
This is an unusual drama. It is not that dialogue is truncated by long pauses but that long gaps of silence begin and end the attempts at dialogue – or conversation, in an abrupt, impersonal and expostulatory style. An interest in film, particularly reel-to-reel and not digital, seems to be shared although even a discussion about it, is pared down to a game where one character simply throws out the names of a couple of well-known actors for another to list the films that link them. There is an extreme dimension to the language as well. Sam describes Rose as a lesbian to his other male colleague, Avery, but only for the reason that he is incapable of any other language which might more carefully calibrate his reaction and dealings with her. But it also reflects his sheer ignorance of who she is and rather than trying to find that out, he places her in a category which makes her unwanted and unavailable. By the same token, to Sam and Rose, Avery’s detailed knowledge of film does not represent simply an interest but an obsession. There is possibly some pathology here too. Avery rings someone who could be a counsellor. We do not know why he is taking a semester off from university. In an outburst he complains that he has been told to ‘be himself’ to which he supplies his own answer – that he doesn’t know who he is.
This is social interaction stripped of all the subtle nuances and social conventions that language and custom offer, if only the user knew how to use them, in that challenge of getting to know another. It is a bleak emotional landscape, far from being ‘hilarious’ as promoted in its publicity. The metaphor of the importance of reel-to-reel as against digital films is, of course, illuminating. The characters are all products of a digital age and whilst theirs may be a quiet attempt to keep the reel-to reels going they still routinely have their fingers in the till. It is a paradox that whilst all knowledge is available at the touch of a few keys it is the ubiquitous availability that takes away the magic of exploration and discovery. These characters do not want to explore and they do not want to discover as they do not know how to pursue either. And whilst Avery has an extensive knowledge of film it seems possible that film allows him to block out memories if not trauma.
This play received the Pulitzer Prize and it is does indeed provide an important commentary on younger people who have become marginalised by their inability to connect with others. Think American Beauty or Detroit for variations on this theme.