Annie Baker's Pulitzer-winning workplace portrait gets a beautifully realized Chicago premiere.
“The answer to every terrible situation always seems to be like, Be Yourself, but I have no idea what that fucking means,” the young man says in one of the most moving scenes in a play that’s packed with them. “Who’s Myself?”
In some ways that’s the central question of most of Annie Baker’s plays. Witness the searching acting students of Circle Mirror Transformation, or the grasping burnouts of The Aliens. Her subjects in The Flick, a three-hour character study of three employees at a run-down, single-screen movie theater in Massachusetts, are all similarly stunted. Avery (Travis Turner), quoted above, is a depressed 20-year-old movie addict who’s taking some time off from college. He’s the new guy on staff, learning the ropes from Sam (Danny McCarthy), who’s 35, living at home after the end of a relationship, and desperately hoping to merit the attentions of Rose (Caroline Neff), the green-haired projectionist who’s probably not as much of a free spirit as she’d like you to think she is.
Baker lets the trio’s relationships evolve amid all the mundanity that such work friendships bring with them. We watch Sam and Avery sweep up the popcorn from the theater’s floor over and over (the audience sits facing Jack Magaw’s pitch-perfect set from where the screen would be); they get to know each other via small talk and Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. Eventually, confidences are exchanged, and Avery timidly begins to trust his new coworkers. “How do you like ask someone to be friends with—” he asks, in one scene (heartbreakingly played by Turner) in which we hear one side of a phone call with his therapist.
Baker leans into lulls and silences even more strongly here than in her earlier works; this is a play in which “More incredulous pausing” is a perfectly reasonable stage direction. It might indeed get tedious if director Dexter Bullard and this dead-on cast didn’t make these characters so recognizable, and as moving as the pictures on the screen.
Steppenwolf Theatre Company. By Annie Baker. Directed by Dexter Bullard. With Travis Turner, Caroline Neff, Danny McCarthy, Will Allan. Running time: 3hrs 10mins; one intermission.