Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Flick (2017)

"The Flick" at Dobama Theatre
Once upon a time, movie houses dotted the Cleveland Heights landscape like Dollar Stores do now.

My own children lament the loss of the Regal Cinema up at Severance. Sure, we can go to the Regal at Richmond for first-run movies or to Shaker Square, but they loved the idea of having a movie theater one block from our house.

Center Mayfield (1981)
Photo: Cleveland Heights Historical Society
I can remember the previous movie theater at Severance Center, which closed in 2000. When I was in college and just getting my east side footing, my new friends invited me across town to see Robocop, Dragnet … I must have been there a half dozen times during the summer of 1987 alone.

Never really liked the Regal at Severance and I don't like the one at Richmond ... mall movie theaters just make me unhappy. Like so many other hyper-business-structures, they redirected traffic from independent 35mm houses into their shiny multiplex madness, and now they too have fallen into disrepair, squalor and sadness.

The Center Mayfield was located not far from Severance, just up the street, a 1,200 seat house which was split and rather poorly, too, into three smaller theaters. The last time I saw a movie there was in early 1995, one of a few people in the house to watch Kenneth Branagh’s execrable Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

See, they’d cut up the theaters, but they hadn’t relocated the seats. In the middle theater, that may have been fine. But if you were in the left-hand theater (as I was) your seat would be angled slightly toward the right wall of the theater, you had to twist your spine a little to view the screen straight on. At that time I was awaiting a hernia operation and I do not remember ever being so uncomfortable in my life. And I was watching Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Center Mayfield (2016)
Photo: Cinema Treasures
Not long after that experience, the Center Mayfield closed their doors. The following twenty-two years it languished, first as a Hollywood Video, then as a liquor store. A movie rental store with an actual marquee is not bad. A liquor store in a former movie house that couldn’t bother to remove the trappings of having more recently been a Hollywood Video, that was pathetic. January 2017, the entire building was bulldozed, and is currently a large, flooded pit.

The theater seats, however, had an afterlife. They were acquired by Dobama, and during the summer of 1995 were cleaned and installed in their former venue on Coventry until that company was evicted ten years later, in 2005.

A few years earlier, in 1992, business partners Charles Zuchowski and Morrie Zryl renovated the former Heights Art Theatre at the corner of Euclid Heights Boulevard and Coventry. Originally built in 1919, this movie house was best known for featuring pornographic films in the 1970s and 80s.

Centrum Theatre (1998)
Photo: cleveland.com
Rebranded the Centrum Theatre, I first saw a great many films from the 1990s there (Romeo + Juliet, When We Were Kings) as well as significant revivals. I had that rare opportunity few people have to first see Citizen Kane on a big screen, and also Orson Welles’s storied Othello.

Before we were married, my wife and I both worked at 1846 Coventry, in very the same building. I was down in the basement working as public relations director for Dobama (until 1998) and she was an editor for the Free Times up on the second floor. After work, we could walk around the corner to see a movie, just like that.

However, Zuchowski and Zryl sold the place shortly after the renovation, and the national distributor which had bought it sunk slowly into debt, giving up before the decade was out. The poster for the last film I saw there, Being John Malkovich, remained on display for the better part of 2000. Another company tried to revive the house but with little success. The Centrum has its final screening in 2003.

Meanwhile, Dobama Theatre had found a new home in the former YMCA space, now part of an expanded complex for the Cleveland Heights-University Heights Public Library. But they needed theater seats!

Guess where the theater seats came from? That’s right.

Annie Baker’s play The Flick follows the theme of disappointment in contemporary America set by her previous works like Circle Mirror Transformation and The Aliens. The story takes place in a rundown, independent movie house (in my mind I imagine the last days of the Center Mayfield) and the characters are an unlikely trio who manage and maintain the theater - we never see the owner - and set in the theater itself.

I am a great admirer of Baker's writing and was very excited when I first learned that Dobama would be producing The Flick. This new work created some controversy when it debuted at Playwrights Horizons in 2013. Some complained to the artistic director that the play is too long.

Seats go into the new Dobama Theatre on Lee Road (2009)
Photo: cleveland.com
That wasn’t the controversy, though, audience members will complain about anything. No, the controversy was when the artistic director sent a letter apologizing to their subscribers for not having warned them of the play’s length, which is bullshit.

Anyway, The Flick went on to win Baker the Pulitzer Prize, and you know what they say is the best revenge.

Dobama is where I have seen both Circle Mirror and Aliens, and each time I was first uninspired by the premise (evening theater classes, slackers slacking behind a convenience store) only to be compelled and moved by the characters, their stories, the plot, the performances. Last Thursday I had the opportunity to catch The Flick before it closed, which was a blessing.

One of the most interesting features of this play is where it is set. As I said, it takes place in the theater itself, not the lobby or at the concession stand, but in the house. Wherever this play has been produced the audience is first subjected to the somewhat disorienting picture of something which is at once completely familiar, but also not.

You are looking at the back of a movie theater, facing the seats, the door you would have normally entered through to see the movie, you can see into the projection booth and what’s inside of it.

You are the screen. The absent movie going audience is facing you.

In the Dobama space, you may or may not notice that the seats on the set are identical to those you are sitting in. Not just the red fabric of the seats themselves, but the sides of the seats at the end of each row, are blazoned with interlocking “Zs.”

Two Zs, for Zuchowski and Zryl, seats custom-made for the late Centrum Theatre.

The Flick by Annie Baker was produced at Dobama Theater, March 3 - 26, 2017.

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