Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

The Flick
Steppenwolf Theatre Company
Review by John Olson | Season Schedule

Also see John's review of Far from Heaven

Caroline Neff, Travis Turner, and Danny McCarthy
Photo by Michael Brosilow
The passing of the small community movie theater has previously been mourned in film and novels, as in The Last Picture Show and Cinema Paradiso. So why not mourn the passing of 35mm film in favor of digital projection? In Annie Baker's Pulitzer Prize winning play, now making its Chicago premiere at Steppenwolf, film buffs Sam, Rose and Avery work at The Flick, the only remaining 35mm theater for miles around Worcester, Massachusetts, and to them, the thought of a conversion to digital is not only sacrilege, it would remove the raison d'être of this run-down, poorly managed cinema. But if a change in method of projection has less symbolic significance than the loss of a town's only movie theater, it still is a marker that things change and a reminder to these three that their lives are stuck while the world evolves.

Sam (Danny McCarthy) is a 35-year-old single man living above his parents' garage with a secret crush on projectionist Rose (Caroline Neff), who is somewhat of a kindred spirit in her love of cinema and possibly the only single woman of his age cohort he knows. Rose is a college graduate, living with roommates and without much apparent ambition or direction. Avery (Travis Turner) is the new guy, a shy college student taking some time off from school (for complicated reasons that are ultimately revealed). The play opens on Jack Magaw's set which, like its New York predecessor, is a realistic re-creation of a small theatre auditorium—with six rows of seats, some 130 in total—and the back wall with doors and a projection booth above all, facing us, the audience, as if we were sitting behind the screen. It's a delicious idea. After a century of audiences watching movie screens, here the "screen" gets to watch the audience.

What we see, though, is an environment quite different from what most of us may picture when we think of movie theatres. Rather than seeing a crowd enjoying an entertainment, here we're looking at the small staff cleaning up an empty theatre between screenings or hanging out after closing time. If you've ever worked in a movie theatre, snuck out in the lobby during the movie for refreshments or a bathroom break, or hung around to see the closing credits, you know movie theaters can be empty, lonely places. That's the perfect setting for Baker's story of these three who find connection with real humans so much harder than with the people on the screen.

Much of the action is simply Sam and Avery's mundane work of sweeping up the aisles. As has sometimes been noted, if a playwright's goal is to get an audience to experience the characters' emotion, and that emotion is boredom, the surest way to do that is to bore the audience. The Flick comes perilously close to that at times, with Baker's script calling for long periods of silence as Sam and Avery sweep the floor, along with scenes occurring visibly behind the glass of the projection booth upstage. The physical performances of the cast say a lot, though, and the deadpan, dry humor that comes from the three trying to deny or minimize the sad circumstances of their lives keeps it entertaining. The great film director Alfred Hitchcock would approve of the way so much of the story is told visually.

The three leads, plus Will Allan (fine in two roles—one small, the other very small), are so engaging we stay with them, despite the long silences and slow pace of the three-hour play. Baker, this cast, and director Dexter Bullard make us laugh at Sam, Avery and Rose, even as we like and care about them. Danny McCarthy, long one of Chicago's great character actors and finally in a showcase role, is a lovable sad sack. You see his longing for friendship with Avery, for a love affair with Rose, and for a promotion to projectionist, right alongside his fear of actually going for what he wants. He even believes a rumor that Rose is a lesbian in order to avoid actually letting her know his feelings for her. Travis Turner is the smart but painfully shy Avery, with emotional issues. Turner skillfully shows us, entirely through body language, what is bottled up inside Avery as well as his occasional eruptions when he has the courage to express his feelings. Caroline Neff, who has played significant roles before at Steppenwolf, again proves herself to be a young actress who can be favorably compared to the likes of her contemporaries Jennifer Lawrence and Brie Larson. Neff says so much through body language—a shrug here, a look there, half-gestures over there—that we learn everything we need to know about Rose with a minimum of dialogue.

The Flick is naturalism, to be sure, and it does require some patience on the audience's part, particularly in the first act. But there are rewards for those with the patience to hang in there until the second act, when the plot moves faster and the themes become clear. We're deeply immersed in the lives of these three people and treated to a gentle comedy with large lessons about living in the world today.

The Flick will play Steppenwolf's Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago, through May 8, 2016. For information or tickets, visit or call 312-335-1650.

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