Steppenwolf's provocative 'Flick' examines lives on the fringe
Several audience members used that word during intermission to describe Annie Baker's 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama "The Flick" at Steppenwolf Theatre's press preview Saturday. Their inflection suggested people looking for a neutral adjective to describe something they didn't necessarily disapprove of, but weren't quite ready to embrace.
They returned to their seats after intermission. The couple sitting in front of me did not. Perhaps they decided one (purposely) leisurely paced, 90-minute act was enough. They should have stayed.
Impressively acted and compassionately directed by Dexter Bullard, long a fixture on the Chicago scene, "The Flick" is a poignant, funny meditation on work, relationships, race and class.
Set in a fading Massachusetts movie theater, one of the last venues to still show 35 mm films, "The Flick" unfolds slowly and deliberately after the cinematic magic concludes: the real life after the reel, so to speak.
The action begins with a sweeping, orchestral fanfare that signals a movie's closing credits, whose flickering images we see reflected in the projection booth glass. The lights come up to reveal an empty theater (impeccably designed by Jack Magaw) where cobwebs cling to the light sconces, water stains mark the ceiling tiles and popcorn and food wrappers litter the floor.
After a few moments, two ushers enter carrying brooms and pushing a trash can. Sam (Danny McCarthy) is the amiable, 35-year-old veteran: a reliable guy with dwindling career prospects in charge of training new hires. Among them is the bespectacled Avery (Travis Turner), a hyper-articulate, 20-year-old cinephile who is taking a semester off college and who has an uncanny ability to filmically link the likes of Ian Holm and Pauly Shore or Michael J. Fox and Britney Spears.
They're joined by the projectionist Rose (Caroline Neff). An assertive, twenty-something with green hair and an attitude, Rose schools the newbie on the long-standing practice of skimming from ticket sales, rationalizing the theft as compensation for their minimum wages.
They sweep. They mop. They argue over films, the benefits of celluloid and the increasing likelihood that The Flick will convert to digital, which purist Avery says will make him quit on principle.
"Some people always freak out when art forms move forward," observes Sam who, with fewer job options, has a more pragmatic response.
Inching toward something that might become friendship, they parcel out bits and pieces of themselves, revealing lives spent on the economic and emotional fringe and filled with yearning -- for a place to be, a reason to be, a person to be with.
Upon learning The Flick has been sold and will likely go digital, Avery writes the new owner an impassioned letter defending film.
"You are carrying a torch," he writes. "I encourage you not to extinguish it."
Unfortunately, progress -- or those technological advances that symbolize progress -- exacts a price. In this case, it's artistry.
Audience members accustomed to a flurry of activity may not initially appreciate the play's unhurried pace or those multiple scenes where the characters work, or watch movies in silence. But those who stick with it reap the rewards of Baker's sweet, quietly provocative drama, directed by Bullard with clear-eyed affection and candor.
The first-rate cast members, which include Will Allan as a former multiplex employee, speak volumes when they say nothing at all.
Turner is ideal as Avery, an endearingly awkward young man with darting eyes and a gnawing fear -- which he expresses in a phone call to his therapist -- that he is destined to be "the weird, depressed guy." It's a nicely nuanced performance in which Turner reveals the vulnerability and the resolve of a young man whose tenure at The Flick marks his coming of age.
Equally vulnerable, but better able to disguise it behind baggy clothes and a tough-girl attitude, is Neff's Rose. Neff's fiercely blunt performance suggests a testy young woman more lonely and fearful than she cares to admit.
Then there's McCarthy's deeply felt performance as the wounded Sam, an essentially decent man approaching middle age and confronting dwindling professional and romantic options. McCarthy's performance has a raw honesty that remains with you long after "The Flick" ends.
"The Flick"★ ★ ★
Location: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago. (312) 335-1650 or steppenwolf.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday to Friday; 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday through May 8. Also 2 p.m. April 20 and 27 and May 4; 1:30 p.m. May 1. No 7:30 p.m. shows April 24, May 1 and 8.
Running time: About three hours, 10 minutes with intermission
Parking: $13 in the Steppenwolf garage adjacent to the theater
Rating: For adults, includes strong language and sexual content