Chicago Theater Review: THE FLICK (Steppenwolf)

Post image for Chicago Theater Review: THE FLICK (Steppenwolf)

by Lawrence Bommer on February 14, 2016

in Theater-Chicago


At three hours long, The Flick takes its—and our—time to not tell a story. Almost all atmosphere (more specifically, totally character), Annie Baker’s 2014 Pulitzer Prize winner is a rare bird: This play perversely mimics the tedium and routine of work (and, it implies, life) by cloning them completely. You will never know a locale better or characters less than in Baker’s inaction meditation on the sameness of settings and the mystery of people.

The Flick_02Somewhere in the present, we’re in the title venue, a “falling-apart” movie theater in unincorporated Worcester County, Massachusetts. In Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s grueling local premiere, we–literally and retrospectively–look back. The audience in effect hides behind the movie screen, gazing at rows of empty seats. An unattended screening has just ended. Stale popcorn, candy wrappers, smeared gunk from “outside” food, a single Adidas sneaker, and other detritus litter the floor. Cobwebs cover the 70s-style sconces. A tile has fallen from the ceiling. A doomed 35 millimeter projector hangs above, soon to be replaced by a new-fangled digital processor (inevitable change and the subject of a coming controversy). This dump is a dead end, both for the few to no customers, even more for three young, underpaid employees whose futures just can’t be “the flick.”

The Flick_06In slow motion, like a film spooling at the wrong speed, we meet two movie-mad janitors, mopping, sweeping and dumping litter, and a projectionist, taking a break from the films she doesn’t watch. (Played by Will Alan are also, briefly, a sleeping customer and a new hire who learns the ropes after this “last picture show” changes owners.) These folks are the plot.  Whatever importance this script delivers comes from their clashing takes on work, life, love, home and the future.

Still living with his mother, 35-year-old slacker Sam (dour Danny McCarthy) is the head cleaner who dreams of becoming a projectionist. He has a frustrated affection for projectionist Rose (Caroline Neff, both resigned and resilient). Finally, there’s the ambitious 20-year-old newbie Avery (Travis Turner, young and old, sometimes at the same time). A cineaste devotee and a family nester like Sam, this geeky African-American college student can cite movie trivia at the drop of credits. He’s also passionately opposed to the dryness of pixel-pathetic digital projection. The proverbial still waters that run deep, Avery sublimates his happiness and sex through the magic of celluloid and Hollywood’s dream factories. He’s happiest hiding in the dark.

The Flick_03Brief black-out scenes soft-spokingly detail their shop and small talk. The result: The Flick feels as “lived in” as theater gets. As it doggedly conveys the drudgery and, yes, despair of these stationary drifters, we discover a ton about the trio, like how drastically the guys differ on the merits of James Cameron’s Avatar.

Other revelations: Despite Avery’s moral objections, the employees resell tickets to augment their meager pay with “dinner money.” Sam will attend the quasi-happy marriage of his “retarded” brother. Among the dreams that nerdy Avery’s recounts, this insecure soul learns that his entire hope for heaven is his ardor for Honeymoon in Vegas, a movie he barely remembers watching. No lesbian, as Sam self-servingly imagines, Rose sends mixed signals to pining, passive-aggressive Sam about her availability and less than mixed ones to a very uncertain Avery. More seriously, semi-suicidal Avery feels betrayed by life–well, people, actually. By play’s end we feel it’s true (but at least he owns the beloved 35mm projector, a souvenir of his servitude and his two-dimensional passions).

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Except for one big ethical dilemma in the middle of the second act, nothing (much) happens here. That’s more the point than the problem. Proving that slow and steady still wins the race, Dexter Bullard’s self-effacing staging just builds and breaks the bonds among three disarmingly real minimum-wagers. He richly respects Baxter’s totally transparent dialogue, as ordinary as if improvised but with enough wry reversals to litter the air with laughs.

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The program’s background essays discuss the curious nostalgia of the young. I’m not so sure this is what’s at stake on this upstairs stage. If the threesome in The Flick look back, as the audience does on them, it’s not to the glory days of beloved movies. This modest epic is more about life than art. These lost souls regret choices that they fear will make their future as unchangeable as their past.

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Admittedly, it shouldn’t take three hours to reach a familiar impasse. No doubt some audience members, fidgeting and then lulled by Baker’s intentionally lackluster slice of Sominex, will doze like the sole customer. But for those who at least keep their ears open, especially the young in the crowd, The Flick probably projects their angst and anguish—and in warm and shaded 35mm, not cold and precise digital.

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The Flick_07photos by Michael Brosilow
poster photo by Saverio Truglia

The Flick
Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Upstairs Theater, 1650 N Halsted St
ends on May 8, 2016
for tickets, call 312.335.1650 or visit Steppenwolf

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Rob N. February 20, 2016 at 10:35 am

Great actors, but someone needs to edit this show and trim it by 30 to 40 minutes. A single set and 3 fairly even-tempered characters is hard to sit through for 3 hours.

We get the monotony and simplicity of sweeping up popcorn and trash after the first few quiet scenes. Please be more considerate of your audience.


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