The first thing you might want to do before seeing Annie Baker’s 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Flick” — now in an ideally realized Chicago premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre — is to reset your dramatic metabolism.
This is a play that operates according to its own very particular clock, a clock that beats to the time of three people with diminished expectations about themselves, about human relationships and about the more pedestrian notion of success. But that is just the seemingly slowed-down or suppressed surface of their existence. There are volcanoes underneath.
The silences, the sustaining tedium of their mundane menial labor and their barely hidden feelings are just coping mechanisms. Deeply disillusioned by life, they play down their expectations, even if those expectations refuse to disappear. The swelling music of big-screen movies that surrounds them is almost self-mocking.
The backdrop for all this is an old movie house in Worcester County, Massachusetts, that still operates with the classic 35 mm projection system, even though the transition to digital has more or less overtaken the movie industry. In this case, the only reason the theater hasn’t made the transformation is that its owner is too cheap to invest in the change, and probably wants out of the operation anyway.
‘THE FLICK’ Recommended When: Through May 8 Where: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted Tickets: $20 – $85 Info: (312) 335-1650; www.steppenwolf.org Run time: 3 hours and 5 minutes with one intermission
The longest term employee at the place is Sam (Danny McCarthy), a 39-year-old who oversees the cleaning and concessions staff — a classic white, blue-collar guy who has never made the leap to the more coveted job of projectionist. As the play opens, he is breaking in the newest employee, Avery (Travis Turner). The son of a semiotics professor, Avery is a nerdy, meticulous young African Americanwho has taken time off from college, is obsessed with the movies and is even more obsessed with preserving the old technology, much like one Quentin Tarantino (who recently made his big protest with the 70 mm film “The Hateful Eight”).
While sweeping the popcorn that litters the floor, and dealing with some of the more disgusting things left behind, Sam and Avery engage in a contest of wits involving movie trivia. The undertow of distraction is generated by Rose (Caroline Neff), the white, twentysomething, college-educated projectionist — tough, carelessly and ambiguously sexy, and, like the men, emotionally lost in space. Sam wants her but can’t connect. She is intrigued by the enigmatic Avery, primarily because he is so remote and repressed that he offers a challenge.
The push and pull among the three develops in an organic way that unfolds in scenes that can meander or click quickly, with fades and black-outs in cinematic style. Along the way, confessions are made, ethical issues are debated, romantic overtures are thwarted, betrayals occur. The question of what is normal is encapsulated by the fact that it is Sam’s older brother, who is mentally disabled, who actually manages to marry.
Race and class also are in play here in sometimes unexpected ways, with “The Flick” joining such previous Steppenwolf productions as David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Good People” and Heidi Schreck’s “Grand Concourse” in this regard.
Director Dexter Bullard, whose credits range from shows at nearly every Chicago theater to on and off Broadway, is finally working on a major Steppenwolf production. And his ability to conjure natural rhythms of speech and behavior, like Baker’s, is fully in evidence here, with his actors perfectly in tune with that challenge.
McCarthy deftly captures Sam’s dignity, sadness, perseverance and decency with just enough humor and understatement. Turner, full of surprises, finds the moody extremes of Avery, and thrills with a rendering of a passage from the Bible spoken by the prophet Ezekiel. Neff, an actress of raw vitality, is superb as Rose, most notably in a beautiful misguided seduction scene, and a dance of exorcism that nearly stops the show. Spot-on in the small role of a guy who has worked at a multiplex is Will Allan.
Jack Magaw’s movie-house set is just right (see those water-marked ceiling tiles), although its rosy velvet seats could have used some distressing. Keith Parham’s lighting, and the sound design and music by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen, are a fine mix of stage and screen.
Of course the operative metaphor throughout “The Flick” hinges on the difference between the magical, humanizing waves of light and shadow of 35 mm film versus the separate dots of digital that, like Baker’s characters, are so isolated. But perhaps like many things these days — from vinyl records to bookstores — everything old will be new again.