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Although such works as “Bug” and “Killer Joe” certainly have established his reputation, it is his award-winning magnum opus “August: Osage County” that truly put Tracy Letts on the theatrical map. Attempting to follow up such a phenomenon would be daunting to most playwrights, who would naturally want to reach even higher. Fortunately, he has resisted the temptation with “Superior Donuts,” now arrived on Broadway after its Steppenwolf Theatre Company premiere last year.
Smaller in scale and less grandiose in its themes, the play is nonetheless a wonderfully affecting and amusing work that reveals a playwright fully in command of his powers.
Set in a Chicago neighborhood that has obviously seen better days, the play is set in a ramshackle donut shop run by Arthur Przybyszewski (Michael McKean), the aging son of Russian and Polish immigrants who opened it nearly a half-century earlier. A former 1960s radical who fled to Canada to avoid the draft, the ponytailed, shabbily dressed proprietor clearly has given up on life, barely managing to be interested when his shop is vandalized and oblivious to the obvious romantic interest of a female cop (Kate Buddeke) who frequents the joint.
Enter Franco Wicks (Jon Michael Hill), a 21-year-old black man who applies for the minimum-wage job as Arthur’s assistant. Energetic and highly intelligent, Franco has plenty of ideas for sprucing up the place to better compete with the Starbucks across the street. More importantly, the young man, who has written “the Great American Novel” and who has secrets that are gradually revealed, also has notions for getting his boss to come out of his shell.
At times, the play, with its single setting and profusion of colorful supporting characters, undeniably has the artificial feel of a vintage sitcom. The characterizations don’t always ring true, and the situations sometimes feel less than organic.
But there’s so much heart in the piece, so much obvious affection for its characters and the milieu they inhabit, that one is easily able to overlook its contrivances. Letts has his characters gradually reveal themselves in dialogue that is alternately quietly moving and riotously funny, with even the most minor characters displaying surprising moments of depth.
They include the voluble Russian owner (Yasen Peyankov) of a video store next door who covets Arthur’s real estate; an elderly wino (Jane Alderman) who periodically pops in for free donuts; a hard-boiled cop (James Vincent Meredith) who also is a “Star Trek” fanatic; a pair of low-level hoodlums (Robert Maffia, Cliff Chamberlain); and the Russian’s hulking nephew (Michael Garvey) who displays an unexpected tender side.
This being a Steppenwolf production, the roles are naturally all performed with uncommon depth and richness. But the chief acting honors go to McKean, who infuses his beaten-down character with a complex soulfulness and ultimately triumphant spirit that is deeply moving.
Director Tina Landau’s staging is pitch-perfect, and the technical elements, from James Schuette’s grungy, ultrarealistic set design to Rick Sordelet’s expert choreography of a lengthy second-act fight scene, are faultless.
“Superior Donuts” might ultimately lack the nutritional value of its highly lauded predecessor, but it’s a damn tasty theatrical treat nonetheless.
Venue: The Music Box, New York (Runs indefinitely)
Production: A Steppenwolf Theatre Company production
Presented by Jeffrey Richards, Jean Doumanian, Jerry Frankel, Awaken Entertainment, Debra Black, Chase Mishkin, Karmichelle Productions/Robert G. Bartner/Carroll & Barry Kaye/Irv Welzer, Andrew Asnes, Rebecca Gold, Dasha Theatricals, Inc., Kathleen K. Johnson, George Kaufman, Charlie McAteer, Terry Schnuck, Michael Gardner/David Jaroslowicz, Roy Gottlieb/Raise the Roof Two, Dena Hammerstein/Pam Pariseau and Stewart F. Lane/Bonnie Comley
Cast: Michael McKean, Jane Alderman, Kate Buddeke, Cliff Chamberlain, Michael Garvey, Jon Michael Hill, Robert Maffia, James Vincent Meredith, Yasen Peyankov
Playwright: Tracy Letts
Director: Tina Landau
Scenic designer: James Schuette
Costume designer: Ana Kuzmanic
Lighting designer: Christopher Akerlind
Sound designers: Rob Milburn, Michael Bodeen
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