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‘The Flick’ at Steppenwolf: A double feature of illusions — or reel life vs. the digital option

Submitted by on Feb 24, 2016 – 10:06 am

'The Flick,' by Annie Baker at Steppenwolf (Michael Brosilow)

Review: “The Flick” by Annie Baker, at Steppenwolf through May 8. ★★★★
By Nancy Malitz

As “The Flick” gets underway at Steppenwolf Theatre, we’re in darkness, looking up into the piercing flicker of light from a projector. A movie is coming to its triumphant end, the whir of the last strip of film flappping through the reels. There follow a few seconds of silence.

Then the lights come unceremoniously on, and a nondescript guy in an oversize polo shirt peeks his head in — push broom, dust pan and young trainee in tow. Playwright Annie Baker has her first sly joke as the echo of movie magic dissipates into this little theater space with its concrete floor, old fabric walls, damaged ceiling, snippet of carpet and lots of spilled popcorn.

“We call this the walkthrough,” says Sam, serene trainer of the sticky butter realm. The two begin to sweep and scoop as the art of the clean-up drill is relayed.

The Flick at Steppenwolf 2“The Flick,” which is three hours and fifteen minutes short and took the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for drama, may fool you briefly into thinking it’s a class exposé on the drudgery of the minimum wage worker. Or a cinema paradiso reminiscence about the old picture show, before shopping center megaplexes put an end to them. “The Flick” even holds out the potential of a cash-register con job, sort of an Ushers Three version of “Ocean’s Eleven,” but this is just a tease.

Instead, Baker produces a clear-eyed meditation on friendship as it flowers and fades in the workplace, where strangers of different backgrounds grope toward a rhythm of working together and easing through their days, perhaps getting a little wiser in the process.

It takes a sharp knife to slice comedy so fine. Bits of insight drop like tumblers in a combination lock, providing answers to inappropriate questions about co-workers that, in retrospect, were begging to be asked. “He’s an identical twin?” “Her parents died in a fire?” That kind of thing. Those aren’t the secrets of Baker’s three main characters, however. No spoiler alerts required here.

Rose (Caroline Neff) shows Avery (Travis Turner) the 35mm projector. (Michael Brosilow)Resplendently ordinary Sam (Danny McCarthy) is kindly, in his mid-thirties, treading water, suffering from skin rash and putting up with a lot. Green-haired Rose (Caroline Neff) is in her mid-twenties, a bombshell in her way, sexually aggressive, looking wild and lacking a compass. Geeky Avery (Travis Turner) is a temporary college dropout, African-American, awesome at movie trivia, diffident, even autistic maybe. His passion is 35mm film. Digital movies are, well, just dots.

The offhand way their secrets are unveiled or implied as the minutes tick idly by seems as fundamental a style to this play as the protracted banana-eating binge in Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape.” Director Dexter Bullard takes his time with these episodes involving various combinations of the three, when secrets are shared, confidences risked, illusions broken. There are no empty moments and some of it is tragically funny.

Sam (Danny McCarthy) blurts out his love for Rose (Caroline Neff) in Annie Baker's 'The Flick.' (Michael Brosilow)McCarthy’s Sam, embarrassed and humiliated, blurts out his long-suppressed fixation over Rose with a force that seems to erupt through his skin. Were you to walk in on a scene like that in the workplace, you would freeze in your tracks. McCarthy’s portrait of the price Sam paid for a life’s worth of accepting disappointments, of being passed by, however noble or necessary, is very fine.

Neff and Turner have their brilliant scene together as Rose and Avery decide to party. Two vulnerable souls, they eventually share a wretchedly awkward sit-down as a movie rolls, the details of which would be a crime to spoil. All three of these Chicago-based actors are able to turn on a dime from pathos to wicked humor and back again, giving beautifully nuanced performances of confession, commiseration and connivance. Their shared crisis, when it comes, is shattering.

Travis Turner as Avery in 'The Flick' at Steppenwolf. (Michael Brosilow)Jack Magaw’s droll set has that sagging 50-year look of a neighborhood place that never had much design dignity to begin with. Keith Parham‘s lighting casts a perfect pall. The sallow walls are an absolute wonder. Yet once or twice, as friendship swells, they almost seem to glow.

When “The Flick” premiered in New York, the Facebook and Twitter realm had its fair share of comments from people who lost patience with the deliberate pace and exercised their inalienable right to exit. Hopefully, Baker’s style is better understood these days, and the urge won’t overtake you. Remember your Beckett. Enable your inner Wagnerian opera clock. Take a deep breath. Let this show happen to you and the minutes will fly.

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