Monday, March 28, 2016

Celluloid Heroes: Steppenwolf's 'The Flick' Offers Warmly 'Reel'istic Portrayal of Cinema Workers -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Flick
a recent play by Annie Baker
directed by Dexter Bullard
Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago
Thru May 8

My regard for any play often pertains to what I take away from it: new perspectives, insights, things to consider and discuss, admiration for the script, actors, staging, scenery, director, etc.

But one's perception of a theatrical work, or any artistic endeavor for that matter, can be intrinsically altered by what we take into it.

Written by Annie Baker, The Flick--winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama--revolves almost entirely around three employees of a single-screen movie theater that shares the play's name.

Set in Worcester, Massachusetts, the past-its-prime Flick is one of relatively few cinemas nationwide continuing to use a 35mm film projector rather than digital projection.

Although I am a film buff with a deep-seated appreciation for bygone remnants of a more analog age--print newspapers & magazines, record albums with artful cover designs, spoken-word conversations, etc., etc.--the affinity I share with the play's Avery character (terrifically embodied here by Travis Turner) and his love of celluloid is admittedly more reflected on a macro level than a micro one. (i.e. I love old theaters, and the traditions and values they represent, but don't avoid or mentally admonish new ones.)

But certainly, I brought identification with, and empathy for, Avery, Sam (an excellent Danny McCarthy) and Rose (the always great Caroline Neff), as they find friendship and burdensome self-worth while sweeping up popcorn and cleaning up shit--sometimes literally--theater patrons mindlessly leave behind for the marginalized and overlooked to devotedly disinfect for a whopping $8.25/hr.

I've never specifically worked at a movie house, but like many with or without college degrees, spent time in sandwich shops, bank teller cages, Kinko's and the like, while currently remaining mired in un- or under-employment.

My attendance at Steppenwolf's upstairs space, where rows of theater seats face rows of theater seats onstage, was in large part motivated by the Chicago Tribune's Chris Jones' rave, 4-star (out of 4) review of The Flick, and greatly facilitated by being able to acquire--especially easily on Easter Sunday--one of the $20 day-of-show discount tickets Steppenwolf generously allots for each performance. (I wound up in the 3rd row, center, undoubtedly amid many who had paid the $78 full price.)

Knowing that the play runs a full three hours--which extends past my comfort zone for non-musicals, and admittedly did here--I made a point of reading an interview with playwright Baker addressing The Flick's length and abundant use of silence as the cinema's employees go about their work without always chattering.

All of the above played into my exploration, understanding and appreciation of The Flick, which I enjoyed and admired, even if seemingly not to the level of Chris Jones and the Pulitzer Prize committee. Although I did seem to like it more than some in the post-show discussion who found it far too long and laborious; the Steppenwolf's supporting literature even noted that during the play's recent Off-Broadway runs, some patrons walked out and even wrote angry letters.

Yet even more acutely in terms of what I "took into" The Flick is coincidentally having just seen Mary-Arrchie's production of David Mamet's American Buffalo, a 1975 single-setting, entirely dialogue-driven play that also chronicles the lives and angst of three articulate yet undervalued and oft-overlooked individuals toiling away in nondescript environs.

Many of the aspects I noted about Donny, Teach and Bobby in my review of American Buffalo just prior to this one--friendship, loyalty, dignity despite their disillusionment, but also obvious imperfections--I also couldn't help noticing in Avery, Sam and Rose, who rebel against their unkindly boss and/or societal injustices in a dishonest way, and two of whom later take a wrongful, yet realistic-feeling, stance regarding the third.

But while The Flick is a slice-of-life play about people on the fringes, conveying to the stereotypically better-heeled Steppenwolf audiences that basic human emotions, longings, insecurities, etc., aren't so different across the socio-economic spectrum, it is also a love letter to film, specifically in terms of both medium and material, but also symbolically regarding the way art, culture, entertainment, hobbies, passions, etc., can be an antidote to the alienation many may feel.

Which essentially echoes my raison d'ĂȘtre.

In the characters of Sam, a 30-something who lives in his parents' basement and longs for love while finding resiliency in the routine and movies offered by the Flick; Rose a college graduate besieged by student debt and a bit beaten down by life but comfortable enough in her own skin to wildly show off hip-hop dance moves to her co-workers; and especially Avery, an introverted 20-year-old African-American (he is written into the script as such) who has presumably had more nourishing relationships with movies than with people and can instantly respond to Sam's 6-degrees-of-separation actor pairings, I involuntarily recalled something else I had just seen in previous days.

Not another play and not a movie--while pausing to suggest my film buff friends see The Flick, if simply for its references to Pulp Fiction, The Wild Bunch, the Coen Brothers, film formats and the merits (or lack thereof) of American Cinema over the past two decades--but a short clip from Freaks and Geeks, a TV show produced by Judd Apatow, which I never watched when it was briefly on from 1999-2000.

After the death of comedian Garry Shandling last Thursday, I learned of his close friendship with Apatow, a now highly successful writer/director/producer to whom he provided guidance and an early show-biz job as a writer on The Larry Sanders Show. The tribute Apatow slyly paid in the Freaks and Geeks scene shown below obviously came long before his mentor's passing, but was shared on social media in recent days.

I find it both extremely beautiful and poignant, and in seeing how The Flick--while also addressing numerous topics and themes--reverently reflects the life-affirming, even life-changing, aspects of art, especially for those of us unsure of ourselves (and really, who isn't?), I couldn't help thinking about it.

And still can't.

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