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Chicago by John Olson

Superior Donuts
Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Superior Donuts
Jon Michael Hill and Michael McKean
June: Cook County. Just a year ago, without fanfare, Steppenwolf premiered another of the many new works it has produced over its history. August: Osage County went on to transfer to Broadway in October and win the Pulitzer in April, the Tony two weeks ago and every other theatre award handed out in between. Even before all that, author Tracy Letts' next play was announced for the Steppenwolf 2008 season and since August's Broadway opening, anticipation and expectations have been high for his follow-up piece, Superior Donuts. The wait is over. Is Superior Donuts as good a play or at least a worthy follow-up to August? The answer? Tracy Letts is a very good writer and Superior Donuts, a shorter and less ambitious play than August, is an entertaining and moving play that is in many ways a worthy follow-up, even in spite of its flaws and some shortcuts Mr. Letts has taken.

The program notes say that Letts wanted to write in a "different key" than he did for Osage County, and Superior Donuts, which still features much of Letts' dry and biting wit, is lighter and more hopeful than the earlier play without being any less realistic about the challenges and disappointments of life. It's set in a grungy old independent donut shop in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood—one of the last of Chicago's communities along the northside lake front to be gentrified. Though Uptown has undergone significant redevelopment over the past 10-15 years, it's still a conglomeration of homeless, recent immigrants, urban pioneers and more recently, just plain non-pioneering yuppies. Its protagonist, Arthur Przybyszewski (Michael McKean), runs the Uptown donut shop that's been in his family since the mid-century, when poor immigrants and American white people from Appalachia first moved there for the promise of low rents and manufacturing jobs. Arthur's long-time employee has recently left after a falling-out and a young African-American college student, Franco Wicks (Jon Michael Hill), shows up to apply for the open position. Arthur's been reclusive and emotionally dead following his estrangement from his father, ex-wife and daughter. The donut shop of course is going nowhere, especially since a Starbucks opened across the street. Arthur has an offer to sell the space to the Russian owner of an electronics store next door (Yasen Peyankov), but he's not willing to accept that offer or do anything to make his own business more competitive. Franco has all the dreams and vision in the world—a kid who still believes he can accomplish anything, and Arthur quickly buys into Franco's hopes.

The rebirth and redemption of an older, middle-aged person by a younger and idealistic one is a theme that's been done before, most recently in the critically acclaimed independent film The Visitor. Though the concept is executed well here—in Letts' finely drawn and fresh characters, his observant and satiric humor and the brilliant performances of McKean and Hill—the familiarity of the premise is probably enough to keep Superior Donuts out of Pulitzer territory. Though you know where Letts is heading—and there's a significant plot turning point you can see coming from the minute it's set up—you care enough for the richly nuanced characters to stay with it.

Arthur is a pony-tailed '60's era draft dodger who returned to the U.S. and Chicago under President Carter's amnesty program after Arthur's father died. He's gentle, charming, and much loved by his Uptown neighbors and customers. If he was ever much of a fighter, he's not anymore, and while a kind, caring person, he's unaware that how much he's valued by the people in his life. McKean establishes Arthur's resignation to the stuff that happens in life with his first line: Ppon entering the donut shop which was vandalized just hours earlier, he looks around a bit and shrugs, "I'll make some coffee." He's occasionally so low-keyed that it slows down the proceedings, but he's an entirely believable, engaging and original character, and you root for him all the way.

You care about the kid he employs as well, though Letts has written a less original character here. Arthur's new employee Franco is written as a fairly stereotypical, young African-American male with big dreams and a quick tongue, and Jon Michael Hill does that as well as anyone in show business. His facility with delivering Letts' dry humor (example: Franco discounts the significance of a nearby Starbucks on Superior Donuts' business by remarking that "they have Starbucks in wheat fields now!"). More than that, he plays the subtext of Franco's unspoken fears and pain so effectively that he shows you why he got to be a Steppenwolf company member at such a young age (around 23, I'd guess).

Director Tina Landau gets Letts' dry humor as well as did Anna D. Shapiro with August: Osage County, and with Loy Arcenas's perfectly realistic set and Ana Kuzmanic's grunge-influenced and thrift-store-fashioned costumes, she accurately catches the Uptown scene. It's populated with characters like Max, the crude Russian shop owner played by the always amazing Yasen Peyankov and the alcoholic street person Lady Boyle, created with perfect detail by Jane Alderman. Letts gives her a few minutes to tell her back-story, which reminds us how little we know about the homeless people we pass by. Kate Buddeke returns to Chicago from Broadway to play Randy Osteen, the cop with a crush on Arthur, and she has a rugged sweetness we haven't seen since Betty Thomas played a similar cop in Hill Street Blues. James Vincent Meredith is her tough, compassionate and "Star Trek"-loving partner. The aptly named Robert Maffia plays a slimy neighborhood criminal and Cliff Chamberlain his dutiful sidekick.

While August: Osage County is about the dysfunction of the families we're born into, Superior Donuts celebrates the supportiveness of the families we choose. Like August's Weston clan, Arthur's natural and marital family has brought him no small amount of pain, but within his little circle of customers and neighbors, they're there for each other. There's enough humor and heart in the piece to make you forgive the familiarity of the premise and the predictability of the plot, and even Letts' short cuts in establishing Arthur's back story through monologues delivered directly to the audience. Letts may be tempted to retool Superior Donuts before its next production, but this rough, rugged little comedy may be best just left as it is.

Superior Donuts plays in the Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre through August 17, 2008. Curtain times are Tuesday through Sundays at 7:30 p.m. (Sunday evening performances through July 27 only), Saturday and Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. and Wednesday matinees on July 30, August 6 and 13 at 2 p.m. For tickets, visit www.steppenwolf.org, or call 312-335-1650.


Photo: Michael Brosilow

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-- John Olson



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