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Theater review: 'Superior Donuts' on Broadway

October 1, 2009 |  6:10 pm

Superior donuts credit Michael Brosilow

When a theater critic calls a play a sitcom, it’s usually meant as a rap on the knuckles. But let’s make an exception in the case of “Superior Donuts,” the bracingly funny new play by Tracy Letts, and compare the work in a complimentary way to one of those golden-age 1970s television comedies by Norman Lear — character centered, socially and politically alert, and, for all the formulaic plotting, brightly entertaining and even occasionally surprising.
As a follow-up to “August: Osage County,” Letts’ sprawling and roundly celebrated family drama that won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award, “Superior Donuts” is markedly less ambitious. No one’s going to accuse this play, which opened Thursday at the Music Box on Broadway, of wearing its canonical desires on its sleeve.

During intermission, I even heard people invoking an old TV show I never expected to hear mentioned again in casual conversation — “Chico and the Man.” The analogy makes sense in terms of story line, but “Superior Donuts” — which revolves around an aging proprietor of a rundown doughnut shop and the young African-American employee who wants to renovate both the business and his boss' pallid life — is far more impressively written.

Superior donuts 2

In fact, about a half-hour into the show, I whispered to my companion that it’s the best TV pilot I’ve encountered in ages. My comment was said with trepidation, because the American theater needs Letts’ talent even more than the networks or premium channels do. I confess I was also a bit nervous early on that the play might dawdle for 2 hours, 15 minutes across terrain that could be covered more effectively in 22-minute weekly installments.

I needn’t have worried. “Superior Donuts” does indeed find enough depth in its situation to warrant the extended treatment. What’s more, it allows its characters a degree of mystery, inertia and ambiguity — stubborn human qualities not usually seen on TV sitcoms outside of HBO or some critically acclaimed ratings-straggler.

This Steppenwolf production — fluidly directed by Tina Landau and set in a dingy coffee and cruller joint that’s conjured with just the right greasy touches by scenic designer James Schuette — manages to have its zingers and its emotional reality too. Letts sets out to turn the audience into a live laugh track, and though some of his jokes are obvious and belabored, he largely succeeds in engendering a mood of generalized hilarity that, to his credit, never derides the hard-luck journeys of the characters.

The strong cast is headed by a superb Michael McKean, whose performance is bound to be remembered as one of the high points of the season. He plays Arthur Przybyszewski, a faded relic from the radical ’60s who inherited his family’s doughnut shop and has been quietly sinking into low-grade disillusionment and despair ever since.  

Admittedly, there's something contrived about the arrival of Franco (a charmingly smart-alecky Jon Michael Hill), the 21-year-old wunderkind with wide affectionate eyes who tries to bring Arthur out of his miserable personal and professional rut. And this kid's snappy retorts to Arthur’s woebegone excuses for the entropic state of his existence tend to have a familiar punchline ring. But that doesn’t mean Letts hasn’t found something psychologically fresh in this workplace odd couple or that he’s trafficking in nothing but comedy cliches.

McKean’s Arthur isn’t so much crusty as withdrawn. An aging, ponytail-wearing, pot-smoking former hippie, he’s chagrined by his failures and regrets — chiefly, the way he disappointed his now-dead immigrant parents and the passive manner in which he let things slip away with his ex-wife, who recently passed away, and his daughter, whom he hasn’t seen in years.

Hill’s Franco is more than just an entrepreneurial dynamo with a sharp tongue — he’s also a budding novelist who’s alternately cocky about his potential and insecure about his fate. Most crucially to the story, he has two vital attributes Arthur sorely lacks — energy to make things happen and faith that the future isn’t out to undermine him.

But it’s not easy to teach an old dog new tricks, and Arthur, a decent, caring and well-read man, has been mired in self-disgust for so long that he’s not sure how much change he’s even capable of. During one of his routine monologues recapping the story of his life, he clarifies to the audience that he was a draft evader rather than a resister. What’s the difference? “Resisters fight,” he explains, as though diagnosing the malady of his soul. “Evaders evade.”

Coming in and out of the shop is a cozy yet diverse community of kooks, including the neighborhood wino, Lady (Jane Alderman), who depends on her free doughnut every morning before heading to either an AA meeting or a bar. In Officer Randy (Kate Buddeke), Letts furnishes Arthur with a love interest (reluctant on his end, zealous on hers). And most unforgettable of all is Max (Yasen Peyankov, firing on all comic cylinders), the Russian immigrant owner of the video store next door who’s like an upwardly mobile Chekhovian peasant run amok in decadent money-hungry America.

Letts saddles Franco with a hackneyed crisis involving a large debt to a bookie (Robert Maffia), whose henchman (Cliff Chamberlain) is growing more impatient by the day. This plot element is of a remedial strain, yet the resolution that’s worked out is unexpectedly original, and it provides a motor for the more important story of Franco and Arthur’s transformative effect on each other. 
“Superior Donuts” hasn’t much poetry, but it has the satisfying tang of a theatrical fable. And once again, Letts has written a play for an ensemble to simultaneously perform and live within. It won’t go down as one of his masterpieces, but it’s definitely a crowd pleaser and an enjoyable stop in a career that is justly generating enormous excitement.

-- Charles McNulty

Photo: Top: Jon Michael Hill and Michael McKean. Bottom: Hill and McKean. Credit: Robert J. Saferstein/ AP