You can view doughnuts simply as sweet treats, but look closer and you'll see they resemble little life preservers.
That becomes clear in Tracy Letts' likable new play "Superior Donuts," set in a rundown Chicago shop with coffee, crullers and second chances on the menu.
The comedy-drama at the Music Box crosses the urban eatery setting of August Wilson's "Two Trains Running" with the snappy banter of the 1970s sitcom "Chico and the Man."
What makes the play fresh is Letts. He creates vivid characters and always has surprises up his sleeve, as seen previously in his paranoid thriller "Bug," the brutal comedy "Killer Joe" and the Tony- and Pulitzer-winning family saga "August: Osage County."
Michael McKean plays Arthur Przybyszewski, a Polish shopowner who inherited the business from his parents. He's resigned to the encroachment of Starbucks, but won't sell his space to Max (Yasen Peyankov), a rich Russian local, because of family ties that haunt him. Flashbacks revealing Arthur's history could have used a bit more finesse.
The arrival of new hire Franco Wicks (Jon Michael Hill) throws assorted new issues into the fryer. The 20-year-old black kid and aspiring writer has big ideas about turning the shabby shop into a hip place for poetry slams as well as how to bring hippie-haired Arthur P. into the present. "You know who looks good in ponytails?" Franco snaps. "Girls. And ponies."
The collision of these two men, each set in their way but who like each other, is what gives the play its juice. Adding more drama is Franco's clash with a bookie (Robert Maffia) and his sidekick thug (Cliff Chamberlain).
McKean, known from TV ("Laverne & Shirley") and film ("This Is Spinal Tap," "Best in Show"), has been on Broadway in Pinter in "The Homecoming" and in a housedress in "Hairspray." He creates a richly nuanced portrait of a man who's given up - and who finally wakes up. Newcomer Hill is a true find. He lands one-liners with the cocky panache of Chris Rock and proves himself capable of breaking your heart.
Adding support in the Steppenwolf production are James Vincent Meredith and Kate Buddeke, as neighborhood cops; Jane Alderman, as a wise bag lady and Michael Garvey, who makes a burly blond impression as Max's nephew in a nearly silent role that shows Letts' tender side.
Director Tina Landau has blended the play's ingredients into a fast-paced and finely designed concoction.
As indelible as "A:OC"? No. But "Donuts" is tasty, warm and fulfilling.
After "Superior Donuts," Tracy Letts' follow-up to "August: Osage County," premiered in Chicago last year, the play was deemed entertaining but minor.
Either this Steppenwolf production has been drastically reworked on its way to New York, or we live in a cynical world where a show as tender and honest, as beautifully written, acted and directed as this one can be blithely dismissed.
True, "Superior Donuts" is a chamber piece compared to "August" and its operatic scale. But smaller is by no means lesser.
The title of the piece is also the name of an old coffee shop in a rough Chicago neighborhood where gentrification's beginning to take hold. The place is realistically rendered as a bare-bones emporium of sagging vinyl and rickety tables; the menu board advertises "CHOC lATE wiTh Sp INKL" and the clock stopped around 8:30.
And it does feel as if things have ground to a halt at Superior Donuts, where owner Arthur Przybyszewski (Michael McKean) is an aging hippie sporting a floppy gray ponytail.
Arthur is barely holding on to a few regulars -- cops Randy (Kate Buddeke) and James (James Vincent Meredith), homeless Lady Boyle (Jane Alderman) -- but he still refuses to sell the store to Max (Yasen Peyankov), an entrepreneurial Russian immigrant.
"Time change everything, and donut has been left behind," Max warns Arthur in stilted English.
Of course, stasis isn't very dramatic, so Letts introduces a quick-thinking African-American detonator named Franco Wicks (Jon Michael Hill). He talks his way into a job at the shop, but his real passion is the notebooks and legal pads holding his Great American Novel, "America Will Be."
But Letts didn't set out to write a Great American Play titled "America Used To Be." Despite a couple of jokes about Starbucks -- the lesser ones in a constantly funny stream -- "Superior Donuts" isn't an ode to how great things used to be. Instead, the characters both stay true to themselves and realize they need to evolve.
There's a thin line between sentiment and sentimentality, but Letts always stays on the right side. He also gets a deluxe production from director Tina Landau (whose work keeps getting better and better) and a cast in a state of grace. The self-effacing Arthur could easily have been a sad sack, but McKean imbues him with wounded dignity and a bone-dry humor, while Hill transcends the part of a smart, ambitious young man cornered by circumstances.
If all this makes "Superior Donuts" old-fashioned, so be it. The show is a timely reminder of the heady pleasure ace actors and ace storytelling can bring.
There’s nothing wrong with comfort, you know?” says the softhearted, sugar-dusted hero of “Superior Donuts,” the new play by Tracy Letts that opened at the Music Box Theater on Thursday night.
This might seem an odd sentiment coming from the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “August: Osage County,” in which family bile is dispensed by the bucketful for more than three hours, as well as the plasma-saturated thrillers “Bug” and “Killer Joe.” But Mr. Letts has mothballed his angst and tossed the deadly weapons in the back drawer. “Superior Donuts,” a gentle comedy that unfolds like an extended episode of a 1970s sitcom, is a warm bath of a play that will leave Broadway audiences with satisfied smiles rather than rattled nerves.
Don’t construe the sitcom comparison as a simple sneer. Who doesn’t like to spend the occasional evening, clicker in hand, with a few episodes of a beloved old favorite? The style and setting of Mr. Letts’s new play strongly evoke Norman Lear’s groundbreaking shows of the 1970s, which mixed smart jokes and social commentary in satisfying proportions. “Superior Donuts” may be familiar and unchallenging, but it’s also comfortable — and no, there’s nothing wrong with that.
Michael McKean plays Arthur Przybyszewski, the proprietor of the title establishment, located in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago, which is just beginning to emerge from decades of decay and neglect. A vandal has smashed in the front door and painted a nasty slur on the wall as the play opens. But Arthur seems less concerned about the violation than do the beat cops who have come to investigate (Kate Buddeke and James Vincent Meredith) or the outraged Russian proprietor of the DVD store next door (Yasen Peyankov).
Arthur’s distracted blue eyes barely register a flicker of emotion as he surveys the damage. But then those eyes stopped searching the horizon for anything in the way of hope, happiness or excitement some time ago. A ponytailed ex-radical in middle age whose life has gone wrong in quiet ways, Arthur is content to drift along peaceably. He’s an amiable shadow of a man; it seems fitting that you can barely read the names of the bands on the rock T-shirts that are a staple of his wardrobe. Although he stubbornly sticks to his routine running the coffee and doughnut dispensary he inherited from his Polish immigrant father, Arthur seems to be fading away, like one of the neighborhood storefronts in desperate need of renovation.
An eager contractor for the makeover job arrives in the form of Franco Wicks (Jon Michael Hill), a brash young black man looking for employment. Brushing past Arthur’s doubts about hiring him, Franco settles in and immediately begins hounding his boss into upgrading the shop. Alternately cajoling and teasing, Franco tosses out suggestions at a brisk clip. How about a poetry night? Some yoga posters on the wall? A few heart-healthier options on the menu?
Played with boundless, buoyant charm by Mr. Hill, Franco is the briskly humming generator of the play’s abundant laughs. Mr. Letts has a finely honed sense of comic rhythms, as he displayed in “August,” which was as funny as it was harrowing. The scenes in which Franco sets about refurbishing his employer — sartorially and emotionally — bubble over with snappy one-liners.
Franco has taken note of the frequent visits of the female cop, who is ostensibly investigating the vandalism. “You’d think Lindbergh’s baby got swiped out of your doughnut shop,” he cracks. Discerning, as Arthur does not, that her interest is more personal than professional, Franco gives his boss a dressing down about his wardrobe and personal grooming habits. “The Grateful Dead ain’t gonna hire a new guitar player,” he snaps, with a withering look at Arthur’s hippie togs.
If “Superior Donuts,” directed with an apt light touch by Tina Landau, possesses the nostalgic appeal of a classic sitcom, it is also hampered by some of the genre’s standard flaws. A subplot about Franco’s gambling debts feels contrived, like one of those dubious byways cooked up by writers in the later seasons of a series, when inspiration flags and the characters’ interactions have begun to go stale. The ancillary characters — the two cops, the blustery Russian and the eccentric old lady who frequents the shop (Jane Alderman) — might have come straight from the Sidekicks, Neighbors and Friends rack, although the excellent actors imbue them all with a sharp specificity.
The relationship at the heart of the play, between Arthur and Franco, is also not without its formulaic aspects. Mr. Letts’s depiction of this budding cross-racial, cross-generational friendship feels a little retrograde, as both Arthur and Franco reveal dimensions that confound each other but help ease the awkwardness between them. (Arthur rattles off a list of 10 black poets, while Franco reveals that he has written what he confidently expects to be the great American novel.)
But Mr. Letts treads gently, underplaying the surrogate-son aspect of their dynamic. (Arthur has lost touch with his 19-year-old daughter and is haunted by the death of his father while he was in Canada evading the draft.) A certain wariness between the two never wholly evaporates as they square off over the unbridgeable divide between the ideals of youth and the resignation of the middle years. The honesty and subdued warmth of the rapport between Mr. McKean and Mr. Hill, who created these roles at the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago last year, also helps freshen the material.
Making a confident Broadway debut, Mr. Hill has the liveliest, most crowd-coddling role, and he plays it for all it is worth. (Groans of shock and dismay erupted at the news of Franco’s setbacks.) But Arthur is the play’s affecting emotional center, and Mr. McKean gives a moving, unfussy performance as this unassuming man. Arthur is eventually prodded by circumstance into stepping out of life’s shadows and taking a stand, even taking a beating. And yet his real heroism is of a more delicate kind: with Franco’s help he learns how to reawaken the active compassion in his heart, nearly dried out from years of neglect.
Tracy Letts continues to surprise. If nothing in his scrappy earlier work like "Killer Joe" or "Bug" suggested the epic family annihilation to come in "August: Osage County," then there was also no reason to expect the creator of the bilious Weston clan to follow with a minor-key comedy-drama, laced through with tenderness and even a sweet vein of sentimentality. The writing is often formulaic and the conclusion contrived, but "Superior Donuts" is a soulful play, full of humor and humanity. Tina Landau's entertaining production for Steppenwolf offers much to savor in the ensemble's gently nuanced performances, particularly those of leads Michael McKean and Jon Michael Hill.
Setting is Chicago's Uptown neighborhood, but the play functions as an elegy for those parts of any American city where multi-generation family-run and independent businesses have been forced to make way for Starbucks and Whole Foods -- places whose disenfranchised locals no longer recognize them as home. It's also a play about the American Dream, erased individualism, rueful middle age, atonement and reawakening -- areas in which it doesn't entirely avoid cliche.
That said, the central relationship is drawn with deep affection, and Letts' dialogue is so crisp and flavorful it's no struggle just to relax into the story's mostly mellow mood and overlook its lapses into implausibility.
The son of a Polish-Russian immigrant couple, Arthur Przybyszewski (McKean) owns a shabby donut-and-coffee shop, lovingly rendered in all its lived-in detail by designer James Schuette. A former '60s radical who has retreated deep within himself, Arthur runs the establishment with the same distanced, distracted air with which he greets its handful of customers, including local cop Randy (Kate Buddeke), whose awkward romantic overtures fly right by him. He seems barely troubled when the shop is vandalized in what appears a personal attack, instead relishing the quiet time at the end of the day when he flips over the "closed" sign and sparks up a joint.
The unhurried first act introduces a colorful assortment of Superior Donuts regulars: hardened but still hopeful Randy and her "Star Trek"-fanatic patrol partner James (James Vincent Meredith); cranky, probably homeless alcoholic eccentric Lady Boyle (Jane Alderman); and Max (Yasen Peyankov), the excitable Russian who owns the DVD outlet next door.
Letts riffs amusingly on "The Cherry Orchard" with the latter character, played with irresistible spirit by Peyankov and clearly modeled on Chekhov's upwardly mobile former peasant Lopakhin. Max is keen to buy the shop from Arthur, facilitating his expansion into electronics. He's unconcerned about competition from Best Buy, claiming he has the edge thanks to "the personal touch. And Croatian pornography."
The play's easygoing rhythms pick up speed with the arrival of Franco Wicks (Hill), a livewire 21-year-old African-American, who's "taking a break" from college and needs a job. The bantering dynamic established here is not unfamiliar: out-of-touch older character prodded back to life by a galvanizing younger one, their quarrelsomeness gradually evolving into friendship. But the sitcom mold is freshened by the fine work of McKean, wearing his sorrow and resignation like an old overcoat; and by the tremendously talented Hill, who explodes onto the stage full of infectious energy and attitude.
Franco begins by suggesting expanding into healthier-eating alternatives, improving customer service, extending opening hours and even trying out poetry readings: "Poets can't pay the rent but they drink coffee like a mo'fucker." He then aims his constructive criticism at tie-dyed, scraggly Arthur's sartorial and grooming habits: "Let me tell you who looks good in a ponytail: Girls and ponies."
Letts is too shrewd a writer to indulge in these makeover fantasies, bursting the bubble of Franco's grand plans via Arthur's inescapable pessimism. "The root of the Polish character is hopelessness," he explains in one of the monologues that punctuate the action, isolated by Christopher Akerlind in gentle spotlight in a style that borrows from Tennessee Williams. Through this device we learn of Arthur's Vietnam draft evasion, his rift with his father, the failure of his marriage and estrangement from his daughter.
August Wilson used a diner counter as the springboard for personal and social history more seamlessly in "Two Trains Running," but Letts keeps the audience absorbed in his story and emotionally invested in its characters.
The play's chief weaknesses are in its major conflicts. Franco's gambling debts feel more like a necessity to introduce the threat of violence than an organic part of the character. And his claim of having produced the Great American Novel is fine until narrative convenience dictates that only one copy written in longhand exists. Similarly artificial is the redemptive fight Arthur gets into when he stands up to the thugs who have taken advantage of Franco. Landau and fight director Rick Sordelet's carefully choreographed staging of this scene further weighs on its impact.
But regardless of the derivative aspects of its characters, and situations that feel too forcefully shaped, "Superior Donuts" is oddly satisfying. Maybe it's the heartfelt nature of Letts' love letter to a changing Chicago. Or maybe it's just the spark of a writer whose words are so alive with poignancy and wit that they take hold of you even in a less than perfect context.