Friday, October 9, 2009

Not Stale Yet

Superior Donuts
Written by Tracy Letts
Directed by Tina Landau
Starring Michael McKean, Jane Alderman, Kate Buddeke, Cliff Chamberlain, Michael Garvey, Jon Michael Hill, Robert Maffia, James Vincent Meredith, Yasen Payenkov
Performances began September 16, 2009
Music Box Theater, 239 West 45th Street

At least Tracy Letts didn’t go the easy route and write August: Osage County 2 for his follow-up play. Although Superior Donuts seems like Dunkin’ Munchkins next to Letts’ three-hour family battle that won a boatload of Tonys and the Pulitzer a couple of years ago, it’s not really inferior, since both are TV-level dramas elevated by excellent acting.

That’s not to denigrate Letts’ very real playwriting talent. As his earlier Killer Joe and Bug already demonstrated, Letts has the ability to create characters that nibble at the edges of mere caricature but are dressed up with enough oddball foibles to register distinctly. Although weak on plotting, Letts writes dialogue that has flavor and grit.

Superior Donuts is also the name of the 60-year-old Chicago eatery that former hippie and draft dodger Arthur Przybyszewski runs—sort of. After his ex’s death, Arthur is just going through the motions, and only pride prevents him from selling his shop to Max Tasarov, the loud Russian next door who hopes to expand his electronics shop.

The play opens in Arthur’s store one morning as cops Randy Osteen (who has a thing for Arthur) and James Hailey arrive after someone broke a window and scrawled “pussy” on the wall. When Arthur enters, he seems oblivious to what’s happened. Later, Franco Wicks enters, a college kid who talks his way into a job as Arthur’s counter and cleaning help. A smart local kid as industrious and able as Arthur is stone-faced and immobile, Franco lights a fire under Arthur to make him see there’s still life worth living: the store, a burgeoning relationship with Randy and Franco’s literary talent.

Admittedly, Letts has written a TV-movie version of the kind of play that littered Broadway more frequently a generation or two ago. Letts defines his characters by their ethnicity—especially Arthur’s Polishness and Franco’s blackness—which lends the proceedings an authenticity otherwise lacking in the derivative plot twists and a semi-happy ending that shows Arthur and Franco ailing physically and psychologically.

But the bond between these two different men—a white liberal with a scruffy grey beard and ponytail and a young black man from the streets—is real enough, and that’s thanks to the performances of the leads under Tina Landau’s lively direction. Jon Michael Hill absolutely kills as Franco, who has Letts‘ best lines and delivers them with gusto. And Michael McKean is a superb Arthur, whose disinterest in life is gradually eroded by Franco’s presence and later difficulties. Letts has written several monologues for Arthur to fill out his back story, and McKean’s wonderfully vulnerable readings give his character much-needed shading.
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