Steppenwolf’s 'The Flick' Tackles Race and Uncertainty in the Mundane

John Frame '17

John Frame '17

Steppenwolf Theatre’s production of Annie Baker’s play, The Flick, brings us the story of three young people exploring the complexities of modern-day life while working as underpaid ushers at a dying 35mm movie theater in Massachusetts. As the theater faces uncertainty with its refusal to switch to digital projection, Sam (Danny McCarthy), Avery (Travis Turner), and Rose (Caroline Nuff) reconcile past ghosts while grappling with an ambiguous future. 

Avery is the self-proclaimed “shit-phobic” 20 year-old rookie who is noticeably awkward and shy on his first day at the job. Sam, the 35 year-old loner, attempts to train Avery on the mundane intricacies of sweeping up popcorn, breaking down the soda machine (“you have the soak the spouts in seltzer water”), and splitting the staff’s side hustle of re-selling tickets to earn a bit of extra cash (“we totally earned it”). The latter is the impetus for a major plot twist in the second act where racial dynamics creep in and the trio faces a difficult turning point.

Rose, the theater’s projectionist, is immediately drawn to Avery while Sam, her silent love interest, looks on. In one unexpectedly entertaining scene, Rose breaks into an elaborate, energetic seduction dance sequence that proves to be miscalculated as the two prepare to watch a classic on the big screen. Avery is compelled to confess details about his personal life and insecurities: “And the answer to every terrible situation seems to be like, be yourself, but I have no idea what that f*ckin’ means. Who’s myself?” This turning point forces the characters to reveal hidden revelations.

Caroline Nuff, Danny McCarthy, and Travis Turner in The Flick

Caroline Nuff, Danny McCarthy, and Travis Turner in The Flick

Travis Turner is a complete delight as the neurotic Avery struggling with his entrance into adulthood. Avery is confronted not only with the uncertainty of what happens next, but how his race will forever trump his privileged yet damaged upbringing. Caroline Nuff brings just enough biting humor and flippant attitude to convincingly reveal Rose’s broken interior. But it is Danny McCarthy’s Sam that is the heart to the play. Transitioning between an obsession with Rose’s carefree spirit and fascination with Avery’s uncanny expertise at Six Degrees of Separation and budding friendship, Sam exudes the insecurities we all try to hide.

The Flick makes liberal use of long moments of silence and quick black outs to close scenes. In an early scene, Sam models cleaning the theater rows in silence as Avery looks on intently for several minutes. The scene gives us a glimpse into the simplicity of their work. In a talkback with Travis Turner, the actor informs that Baker is quite specific about what the characters are thinking during the lengthy pauses. The silence forces actors to explore uncomfortable places that parallel real-life.

The Flick won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize and has much in common with the naturalistic, fully realized drama of Anton Chekov’s work. An exercise in the exploration of the “littleness of everyday life,” with a subtle commentary on race relations, The Flick is worth nearly every moment of its three hour running time.

The Flick by Annie Baker. Now thru May 8th at Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St, $15 students       

John studied English literature and theatre as an undergrad at UChicago. He hopes to be a famous child star one day.

Promotional art for The Flick by Annie Baker at Steppenwolf Theatre Chicago

Promotional art for The Flick by Annie Baker at Steppenwolf Theatre Chicago