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Wednesday, 07 October 2009 20:20

Broadway Review: Michael McKean in "Superior Donuts"

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Superior Donuts
Michael McKean and Jon Michael Hill in Superior Donuts
Photo: Robert J. Saferstein
Superior Donuts, the new play by Tracy Letts will have you wondering how  this could possibly be the same Tracy Letts who wrote August: Osage County.  While August was about angst and family drama, Superior Donuts is a comedy/drama about a very unlikely friendship,  the loss of individualism to the corporate machine and the softening of a cynical heart.    With Superior Donuts Mr. Letts has proven he has the range to become the next Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams. 

Michael McKean (The Homecoming) plays Arthur Przybyszewski the proprietor of a donut shop established by his father in 1950, the year he was born.  He’s a worn-out man who has been neglecting his store of late and can’t seem to remember if it’s Monday or Tuesday.  He’s an aging hippie as evidenced not only by his attitude and stories of “evading” the Vietnam War but by his graying ponytail.  McKean turns in a nuanced and polished performance.  His character shuffles through life with his head down, dwelling on the short-comings of his past and blind to any potential ahead of him. 

Enter Franco Wicks, played by Jon Michael Hill in a career-launching Broadway debut.   He’s an ambitious young African-American man who won’t take no for an answer and quickly ingratiates himself to Arthur.  He’s come to Superior Donuts for a job.  Before he even gets the job he brashly throw’s out unsolicited challenges to Arthur on “dessert cakes” and their deleterious effect on the local, largely minority community.  He critiques Arthur on his lack of customer service.  He points out the obvious, the environment isn’t exactly appealing.  We have scenic designer James Schuette to thank for his recreation of a dreary Chicago coffee shop with mismatched furniture, stark lighting and florescent green borders ringing the windows.  Franco even takes on Arthur’s appearance telling the aging hippie “I’ll tell you who looks good in ponytails, girls and ponies.”

Superior Donuts
Jon Michael Hill in Superior Donuts
Photo: Robert J. Saferstein

Arthur for his part keeps up with the precocious kid point for point; finally ending in a challenge from Franco that he can’t name ten famous black poets.  When Arthur asks him if he’s giving him a “racist” test Franco responds “I can’t be racist, I’m the oppressed.”  In case I haven’t already mentioned it, this is a funny play.  It looks like Arthur might lose the bet until he fleetly and effortlessly rattles off the names of ten famous black poets; impressing his young protégé and winning the bet.

Franco has told Arthur he has written the great American novel, “America Will Be.”  He brings his draft to the donut shop to show Arthur.  It’s made up of various different types of notepads which are held together with bungee cords in a pile about two feet high.  Arthur’s prize for winning the bet with Franco is that he gets to read his novel.  To the surprise of Franco he actually does read it and likes it; giving Franco constructive and well thought out criticism and deepening their bond. 

The play utilizes a theatrical device with Arthur snapping into a tableau with a quick lighting pull-down and a tightly focused special as he reveals the details of evading the draft, his father’s disapproval, his ex-wife and his estranged daughter.   These transitions feel jarring and abrupt but serve to give Arthur an outlet to reveal his story.  I think this could have been done to better effect by slowing the lighting queue down by another count or two on the pull-downs. 

Towards the end of the first act two thugs played by Cliff Chamberlain and Robert Maffia enter the donut shop.  It seems that our bright intelligent Franco also has a thing for gambling and has racked up a serious debt and these men are here to collect.  The moment seems introduced late in the play.  It seems out of character for the normally cheery and bouncy Franco and we have had no hint of it until almost the end of the first act. 

As Arthur’s and Franco’s relationship unfolds there are a couple of parallel plot lines.  The female police officer, Randy played coyly and humorously by Kate Buddeke.  She has taken a fancy to Arthur, and he with her.  Neither is willing to make the first move.    Her partner on the force, Officer James Hailey played by James Vincent Meredith is a brash “Trekkie” (“Trekker,” if you prefer) and a man who can be brought to a quick flash-point as he goes toe-to-toe at one point with the Russian shop owner next door, Max Tarasov.  Max is played by native Bulgarian Yasen Peyankov.  Peyankov brings just the right amount of color to the character to add extra texture to the play as he tries to convince Arthur to sell him his shop so he can expand his electronics store.  Arthur refuses.  Peyankov’s character is rife with misnomers and hilarious mutilations of the English language and he uses his own accent to great effect. 

There’s donut shop regular, Lady played to perfection by Jane Alderman.  She’s a bedraggled old woman who can’t seem to comprehend anything anyone says to her the first time they say it.  This is due most likely to alcohol consumption.  Despite her talk of going to meetings, when asked by the female police officer Randy how many days she has she replies “just today.”

It isn’t long before Franco’s gambling debts come back to haunt him.  He has a particularly ugly run-in with his bookie’s henchmen.  This lands him in the hospital minus a few digits and subsequently leads to a physical altercation between Arthur and one of the men.  The shallow depth of the set didn’t allow the two men to easily move about the stage.  In the Music Box theatre you are so close to the stage that even the slightest bit of air between a thrown punch and a face ruins the illusion.  Veteran Broadway fight choreographer Rick Sordelet  choreographed an impressive fight despite the odds. 

At the helm of Superior Donuts is Steppenwolf ensemble member Tina Landau (Bells Are Ringing) making her Broadway play directing debut.  She has assembled a fine cast and guided them as they built these rich characters.  I spoke briefly with Ms. Landau at a recent blogger event held by the show and found her funny and engaging and that was reflected in her production. 

Superior Donuts is a terrific new American play.  It doesn’t pack the same wallop that August: Osage County did but it isn’t without it’s sweet, uplifting moments.  The end of this play might just leave you with a moist eye.  The performances are believable and committed.   I’m hopeful and confident that we will see much more from Mr. Letts and Ms. Laundau over the coming years.  And I’m pretty sure we’ll see Jon Michael Hill again. 

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View production credits at Internet Broadway Database

Review Roundup:

Michael Kuchwara for The Associated Press - “Sometimes doughnuts can have nutritional value — at least dramatically.”

Elysa Gardner for USA Today - “Typically, Letts doesn't provide a tidy happy ending, but he doesn't conclude on a low note, either. In its amiable spirit and capacity for hope, Donuts may be, in its unassuming way, as daring a move as he has made.

Terry Teachout for The Wall Street Journal - Tina Landau's direction is neat and right, but the staging of this production takes a back seat to James Schuette's set, a flawless replica of a grubby, grimy inner-city storefront. It's so realistic that you can almost smell the cinnamon buns.

Melisa Rose Bernardo  for Entertainment Weekly - Superior Donuts' sitcomesque story, by August: Osage County playwright Tracy Letts, won't linger, but you’ll likely leave craving a cruller.

Last modified on Wednesday, 14 October 2009 19:33