Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 1, 2009
Superior Donuts by Tracy Letts. Directed by Tina Landau. Scenic design by James Schuette. Costume design by Ana Kuzmanic. Lighting design by Christopher Akerlind. Sound design by Rob Milburn & Michael Bodeen. Hair & wig design by Charles LaPointe. Cast: Jane Alderman, Kate Buddeke, Cliff Chamberlain, Michael Garvey, Jon Michael Hill, Robert Maffia, Michael McKean, James Vincent Meredith, Yasen Peyankov.
If Superior Donuts is leaner (nine actors, two hours and five minutes), it addresses an issue of equally potent, if less explosive, concern: the political, personal, and economic evolution of Baby Boomers in the 21st century. In telling the story of Arthur Przybyszewski (Michael McKean), a 59-year-old second-generation Polish native of uptown Chicago who’s running the donut shop (named the same as the play’s title, by the way) his parents left behind when they died, it feels real and relatable, in every way more significant than August in demonstrating theatre’s potential emotional and psychological pull.
But as cozily directed by Tina Landau, this production (which was originally presented last year, like its predecessor, at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company) finds its own size much as Letts’s earlier acclaimed works, such as Killer Joe and Bug, did - by being itself. The struggle Arthur faces in existing beyond his youthful hippie inclinations, which led him to resist the draft and hide in Canada until President Carter facilitated his return home, is far more compelling than it seems like it should be. That’s because Letts weaves his problems throughout an in-depth exploration of what success means - or has ceased to mean - in the present day.
Arthur’s business is being driven out of relevancy by the ever-encroaching Starbucks, as well as threatened by his Russian entrepreneur neighbor, Max (Yasen Peyankov), who wants to buy out the shop to build a block-filling electronics store. Arthur divorced his wife several years ago - she moved down South, subsequently died, and he hasn’t seen his daughter since - and hasn’t convinced himself to reenter the dating pool. And his everyday interactions remain limited to his regular customers: two cops, Randy and James (Kate Buddeke and James Vincent Meredith), and the slightly crazy Lady Boyle (Jane Alderman). Arthur’s also never recovered from his father calling him a coward as he departed for Canada - in fact, he’s lived the last several decades unknowingly trying to prove him right.
The appearance of Franco Wicks (Jon Michael Hill), a 21-year-old black college drop-out who’s trying to support himself, is just the catalyst Arthur needs. Admittedly, Franco is unusual. He wants a job at Superior Donuts, if only so he can transform it into a more varied business (after-dinner pastries!) that will attract a new, more affluent clientele. He’s written a book about the young-urban-black experience, which he thinks may be good enough to make something of. And, oh yes, he has just the tiniest gambling problem, and $16,000 of debt hanging over his head, a commitment that a certain interested party, Luther Flynn (Robert Maffia), is not willing to forget.
The political implications here are not hard to discern, especially given Chicago’s relationship with President Obama, whose journey to the White House was in mid-skyrocket at this show’s Steppenwolf premiere last summer. But if they’re important to the action - especially given Arthur’s reflective monologues, which he uses to explain the last 40 years of his tortured mind - they never subsume it as they did in August. Everything is more unified: Arthur proving his liberal bona fides by accepting Franco’s challenge to rattle of the names of 10 black poets, Max’s expansionistic spirit being so at odds with Arthur’s conservative contractionism, the plight of the poor-but-mobile Franco, who embodies Arthur’s ideals better than he does, and even Lady’s declaration that the spinal cord “trumps the heart and the brain every time” - it all just fits together.
And Landau provides plenty of the necessary glue with her deceptively adventurous staging, which suggests that inertia, like danger, can always exist where you least expect it. Fast-moving exchanges alternate with deadly silences to make the donut shop, which has been designed by James Schuette to softly shabby perfection, look like exactly the fading outpost it should be on the edge of a speeding-by world. There’s even a truly bizarre fight scene (staged by Rick Sordelet), blending traditional brawling with newfangled dirty tricks and even a napkin dispenser, that would feel out of place in any sensible play, but feels like exactly the patched-together conflict that could take place in this relic of a bygone breakfast era - Landau has seeded the atmosphere well.
McKean, decked out in costume designer Ana Kuzmanic’s tie-dyed T-shirt and a graying ponytail, is a fine picture of aging weariness. His voice has the lazy, weighted drone of a been-there-done-that drifter who now just wants it all to be over, and his explosion into the active life once again is of the handsome, slow-ignite kind that properly demonstrates what Arthur spends the whole evening telling us: that there are no easy transitions in his life. Hill is a brash and energetic Franco, skillfully combining a full adult’s hungry caginess with a boy’s impetuous outlook. Maffia is oddly underpowered as a painfully serious high-interest lender - the bookie as CPA? - and Peyankov wields as Max a bit too much of the stop-at-nothing energy you’d expect from Luther - but the contrast between them pays off in a big way later on. Buddeke is nicely subtle as the darkly flirtatious Randy, and Alderman is predictable but effective as the addled woman whose brain isn’t broken enough to not tell the truth.
She’s vital for just that reason - truth is what Superior Donuts is most deeply about. Letts investigates in this play how you can find it and what it means when you do, when you should hold on to some ancient version of it and when you should trade it in for a newer model, and what relationship (if any) it has to succeeding at your chosen goals. One suspects that the way Letts has fused all this together won’t capture the public imagination quite the way his last play did - the end result isn’t flamboyant or audacious enough for that. But it’s warmer, more human, and more thoughtful, in every way living up to the mantra of Franco’s book, which defines these characters’ lives and, Letts argues, should probably define all of ours, as well: “Never stop moving.”