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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
What's especially heartening is that Superior Donuts is an enjoyable, substantial addition to the work by a playwright who never fails to impress and surprise with his finely wrought characters and sharp dialogue. The chilly Killer Joe and Bug initially compartmentalized Letts as a dark thriller playwright. That changed with August: Ausage County which zoomed Letts' playwriting career into the stratosphere and defied the dictum that 3-hour plays with large casts went out with Eugene O'Neill ( to whose Long Day's Journey it was often compared). While Superior Donuts appears to be in a slighter and lighter imood, than the super successful August. . . it is nevertheless a rich, genuinely interesting picture of a particular slice of life in Chicago that digs beneath its comic facade.
You don't have to be from Chicago to relate to the characters, their story and the setting: — a shabby donut shop in a working class neighborhood that's become subject to vandalism — but not enough for a Starbucks to move in and kill business for its 59-year-old Arthur Przybyszewski (Michael McKean). While it's unlikely that this enterprise inherited by Arthur from his father, a post World War II Polish refugee. A more recent refugee, Max Tarasov (Yasen Peyankov), owns a DVD store nex door. This predatory racist ranting Russian is, as our Chicago colleague Larry Bommer observed when writing about the Chicago premiere, is sure to bring to mind the ambitious ex-peasant in The Cherry Orchard. He's confident enough in his ability to live the American Dream so that he won't be done in by a competing chain if he can grab Arthur's shop and expand his store.
But Arthur a mild-mannered middle aged hippie who still sports a pony tail and earring is determined to hang on to the store and make those superior donuts by hand each evening. He's something of a sad sack. He's still emotionally wounded from having his now dead father's accuse him of cowardice when he protested the Vietnam War and moved to Toronto to evade the draft. Another unhealed emotional scar comes from the death of the wife from whom he was divorced when their only now 19-year-old daughter was thirteen.
Despite an act of vandalism which brings the neighborhood cops, the black Officer James Holly (James Vincent Meredith) and the Irish Officer Randy Osteen (Kate Buddeke) on scene, the play starts out as an almost sit-comish comedy. The laughs continue to dominate when Franco Wicks (Jon Michael Hill) a street-wise 21-year-old arrives to apply as Arthur's minimum wage helper. Franco is outrageously sassy (during the get-acquainted job interrview he asks Arthur whether he's a racist but quickly states "I can't be a racist— I'm oppressed") but something about Franco makes Arthur take him on and things aren't ever going to be the same. Arthur may ignore his new assistant's unsolicited advice for pepping up the 1950's style donut shop with healthier food, poetry readings, but he's not quite as deaf to Franco's tips for doomg something about the middle aged officer Osteen's obvious romantic interest in him.
As we learn about the lingering wound of Arthur's exile from Chicago during ther Vietnam war and the failed marriage and lack of contact with his daughter that contribute to his allowing himself to just drift along, so Franco's story also has its dark side. He's bright, charismatic and, to Arthur's surprise, a talented writer (this after Franco has let him read a novel handwritten in a stack of notebooks over the course of seven years). Unfortunately Franco hasn't been smart enough to avoid amassing a huge debt with a thuggish bookie. And so, just as the relationship between Arthur and Franco begins to blossom, that debt threatens to shift the emphasis from comedy to tragedy.
If you think some of the characters strutting in and out of the donut shop sound a little formulaic and the thuggish debt collectors seem to pave the way for the play's darkness to tend towards melodrama and violence, you're right. But consider that the actors playing these characters are as superior, and probably more so, than Arthur's donuts and that Tina Landau's staging works wonders to downplay the contrived elements enough to make this a believable and easy to identify with valentine to endangered neighborhoods and the family businesses that imbued them with personality. Landau and the ensemble also insure that the darker second act is as touching as it is melodramatic.
Michael McKean and Jon Michael Hill are sure to collect a fistful of honors and awards for their terrific portrayals of donut maker Arthur Przybyszewski and Franco Wicks the brash but irresistible young black man who shakes him out of his rut. But while McKean and Hill can be regarded as the leads, this is a spectacularly fine ensemble. Kate Buddeke is delightful as the cop with a taste for the donut maker as well as his donuts. Jane Alderman is so endearing as a lonely eccentric drunk that you forget similar characters you've seen in past plays and movies. Yasen Peyankov is deliciously obnoxious as Arthur's rapacious neighbor and James Vincent Meredith amusingly matches Max's racism with his own putdowns of Poles and Russians. Robert Maffia Cliff Chamberlain are aptly creepy as the gangsters who finally get Arthur to show his dad that he's no coward.
James Schuette's rundown, old-fashioned diner is authentic, from the red stools around the counter to the rust spotted uncovered radiator. While interspersing audience addressing monologues into active scense tends to be awkward and distracting, McKean's frequent shifts to internalized memory mode is fluidly integrated into the script, and enhanced by Christopher Akerlind's subtle lighting.
Though the play is not 100% without cliches or implausibility (especially towards the end), these shortcomings are easily ignored or forgiven in the light of the finely nuanced performances, staging and Letts' way with forceful dialogue. No it's not another August: Osage County, but it is a wonderfully affecting look at a vanishing world and the healing power of friendship.
Links to reviews of other plays by Tracy Letts
August: Osage County