"The Flick" Review- A prizewinner at the Steppenwolf Theatre

Annie Baker’s play, “The Flick", currently in production  at Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, through May 8, 2016, took the Pulitzer Prize in 2014, as well as winning the Susan Smith Blackburn Award and the Obie Award for Playwriting. After the first act, which ran one hour and forty minutes, this reviewer joined other guests in the lobby, and heard many gentle complaints about how slowly it was moving; nobody spoke of leaving. Since most people who go to Steppenwolf are sophisticated consumers, what gives? The audience was  experiencing a flicker of exactly what Baker is driving at- the non-action of her characters’ lives.

Danny McCarthy as Sam; Photo by Michael Brosilow

 The time is now- the scene is set in the last 35mm movie house in Worcester County, Massachusetts. As the play opens, and the day to day existence of the 3 minimum wage workers who marginally operate “The Flick” theater wears on, they suspect the coming of anathema-digitally shown, digitally mastered films. Caroline Neff as Rosie, perhaps 30 and college-educated, and Danny McCarthy as Sam, 39, a blue-collar kid, have worked here forever; she runs the projector, he is in general maintenance and helps run the concessions booth.  And he loves her, but she doesn’t know. In comes Avery, played by Travis Turner, a much younger black kid, who has taken time off from college-his dad teaches semiotics-to learn the ropes-or, in this case, how to push a broom. He’s in love with movies, and wants to save the old technology. In the end, he helps to save them all and to escape.

Travis Turner as Avery; Photo by Michael Brosilow

A good four fifth’s of the play is spent watching Sam and Travis push those brooms around a stage whose front half eerily mirrors the one where the Steppenwolf audience is sitting- the upper back half reveals Rosie’s projection booth. Sometimes we can hear the whir of the projectors. Sometimes we can hear loud music from running film. But, mostly, all we can hear is  brilliant subtly spare dialogue-the interior monologues of their lives played out before us. Annie Baker’s pitch-perfect ear catches and amplifies the unsettling emptiness of the older two through their laconic remarks. Even Avery, whose life-trajectory certainly seems brighter, seems bogged down with trivia- he and Sam play an ongoing game that requires a breadth of information about the movies and the actors in those movies that have framed their lives.For Sam, the game may be a way to pass time with Avery. However, Avery can mine a deep vein of information about these films, and express well-thought-out opinions about each film's place in the pantheon. The two push on, occassionally treated to rencounters with Rosie. There are many fade-to-black times out, and the pushing resumes.

Caroline Neff as Rose and Danny McCarthy as Sam; photo by Michael Brosilow

Yet, some important events ARE taking place among the three people, amid the spilt popcorn and the candy wrappers.Very quickly, Avery is roped in to their thievery; they all steal from the receipts. A very typical triangulation takes place; Sam tries to convince Avery that Rosie is gay, and expresses his dreams of learning the projector. When Sam leaves for his retarded brother’s wedding, they betray him deeply, if unknowingly: Avery reveals the brother’s condition, is taught the projector, and has almost immobile manual one-way sex with Rosie. When Sam returns, most of it comes out. And still, the reels turn and the brooms push.

Caroline Neff as Rose, Travis Turner as Avery and Danny McCarthy As Sam; photo by Michael Brosilow

These characters are all too human. The emotions of the older two have been trained into compliance like hair with Brilcream-only the cowlick of get-back-at-the-boss petty thievery sticks out. For Avery, things are not quite the same. Although he’s a self-contained nerd, he walks out with what he needs when Damascus arrives in the form of a digital buy-out- he gets the projector after getting betrayed and fired. Yet, despite the circumstances and the restrictions imposed on their lives, these charachters reveal themselves to each other and to us, and just as film has informed their lives, they inform ours in unexpected human ways. We understand them and they understand and forgive each other.

The cast of "The Flick"; photo by Saverio Truglia

Dexter Bullard did a masterful job at directing the three stars; in retrospect, there’s not a spare word to cut. Sometimes, though, it was hard to hear them; if this, too, was intentional, then it’s worth straining to listen: if not, mike them up so we can hear every line! The acting is understated and catches every nuance. The play is highly recommended.

For tickets to “The Flick” and other great performances at Steppenwolf, go to www.steppenwolf.org

 

 

 

 

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