Chicago Theatre Review
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The Flick – Steppenwolf Theatre
Nothing theatrical happens in this production, but it remains one of the finest, most thought-provoking productions of this season. Three minimum wage employees of a rundown Massachusetts movie theater go through their daily chores, often in complete silence, stopping every now and then to discuss the finer points of cleaning up after customers, the merits of 35mm film versus the 21st century digital format and life itself. Rose, Sam and Avery, the newest employee, share thoughts about their everyday routine as well as significant moments from their own lives. Slowly paced, sometimes playing for long periods of time without a word spoken, with only the sight and sound of endless piles of old popcorn and half-empty paper cups being swept away, the days roll by endlessly. But throughout all this minutiae and mundane conversation unfolds a comic drama, filled with scenes of deep understanding and empathy for these three characters.
Winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Annie Baker has created a work of art that really has to be seen to be appreciated. It’s not a play that’ll appeal to everyone because, like an episode of “Seinfeld,” this extraordinary show appears to be about nothing. Like the individual frames of a 35mm film, each scene is separated by a short blackout during which time has passed. Almost every episode seems very commonplace; but experienced in total, especially under Dexter Bullard’s masterful direction, this cinematic structure proves the whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts. It’s a drama that focuses on the kinds of characters who have rarely if ever been seen in a play. And yet, this moving, existential story speaks to every gender and age about who we are, our relationships with others and the paths on which life sends us.
The first thing that hits you is Jack Magaw’s magnificently detailed scenic design. At first, after the audience takes their seats, they might think they’re staring at a mirror reflection of the Upstairs Theatre auditorium. But Magaw’s set is the interior of The Flick, a tired, tattered movie house, with rows of soiled, red velvet seats, highlighted by cobweb adorned lights, stained ceiling tiles and that familiar garish carpeting that movie theatres use, edged by a strip of safety lights. The playhouse is overlooked by several grimy upper level windows where the giant movie projector lives. The rooms above are stuffed with old movie memorabilia, posters and various personal effects. In its simplicity there are illumination elements specific to a film venue: houselights that slowly fade, the flickering projector bulb, the daylight outside the emergency exit, all executed with subtle realism by lighting designer, Keith Parham. Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen have created a sound track that sounds authentic and natural.
The cast is a true ensemble of excellence. Travis Turner creates a shy, cinema nerd who lives at home and attends college where his dad is a professor. Mr. Turner’s Avery is not only passionate about movies—movies on actual celluloid film—but he has a photographic memory of every movie he’s ever seen. As Turner’s character becomes more proficient in the skills necessary for his menial job, he gradually opens up about his private life. Avery evolves as a gentle soul for whom life isn’t always as easy as might be expected. Danny McCarthy is strong, authoritative yet sympathetic as Sam. His seniority at The Flick, coupled with being older than his two coworkers, makes him feel in charge. The problem is that Sam’s boss has never seen him as anything but a janitor who can also sell tickets and concessions. But as Mr. McCarthy’s tightly-wound, multilayered character slowly reveals secrets of his own. The Sam we first meet at the beginning of the play isn’t the same character we say good-bye to by final curtain. Will Allan plays a patron who Avery and Sam discover asleep one night after the movie has ended. In addition he also plays Skylar, a young, new employee, with previous movie theatre experience.
The actor who provides the real connection between Avery and Sam is the incredible Caroline Neff, as Rose. With a vast resume of credits, this young actor, who made such a lasting impression in Steppenwolf’s “Airline Highway,” eventually found herself recreating that role in her deserved Broadway debut. Ms. Neff plays Rose, the projectionist and sometime front-of-house manager. The girl is a skilled young woman who’s merely floating from day to day. She’s fallen into a daily routine of existence, broken only by an occasional date. And because Rose seems unconcerned about anyone or anything else, rebuking Sam’s romantic overtures, he concludes, with a macho air, that she must be a lesbian. But when Sam takes a weekend off to attend his brother’s wedding, Avery and Rose are left alone to run the theater. From then on we come to know a very different Rose. The thing is, as antisocial as Rose initially appears, she’s probably the character most theatergoers would want to know and spend time with outside this play. Caroline Neff is simply breathtaking in this role.
There are no big dramatic scenes, no earth-shattering revelations or plot turns. The long silences can try the theatergoer’s patience and the minutes can be counted by the amount of spilled popcorn that’s swept. There’s not much action and sometimes very little dialogue. Yet Annie Baker’s multi award-winning play, that just recently ended its New York run, quietly leaves audiences ultimately moved and invested in these characters. As they run the projector and clean up after each showing, Avery, Sam and Rose discuss film, family and the funk that slovenly movie patrons have left behind. And in the end we’ve all made a strong, lasting connection.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented February 4-May 8 by Steppenwolf Theatre in their Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago.
Tickets are available at the box office, by calling the theatre at 312-335-1650 or by going to www.steppenwolf.org.
Additional information about this and other fine area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com