October 17, 2009

"Superior Donuts" Is a Savory Treat

The soulful black character who teaches an emotionally stunted white character how to live is as familiar in American novels, movies and plays as flags are on the Fourth of July.   If you’re a black person like me, you’ve long ago made peace with the fact that Jim is going to mentor Huck, Bubba Blue is going to inspire Forrest Gump. And, if need be, they’ll willing sacrifice themselves to get the job done.

So I figured I knew exactly what to expect from Superior Donuts, the new play by Tracy Letts.   For Superior Donuts, which is currently playing at The Music Box, centers around the relationship between Arthur, an aging and burnt-out white hippie who owns an equally down-and-out donut shop in Chicago, and Franco, the energetic young black man who comes there to work for him. What I didn’t know was how entertaining—and, in some ways inspiring—an evening it was going to turn out to be. 

The eponymous shop is located in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago and scenic designer James Schuette has created such a realistic set that you can almost smell the grease in the air.  The action unfolds over a few winter weeks (more shoutouts to lighting designer Christopher Akerlind and sound designers Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen for recreating the convincing look and sound of the season.) 

Things get complicated when Arthur fends off a buyout offer from his next door neighbor Max, an irrepressible Russian immigrant. The newly-hired Franco tries to persuade Arthur to update his store to cater to the more upscale clientele that gentrification has brought to the neighborhood and to respond to the romantic advances of the female cop who, along with her black partner, regularly frequents the shop.  And, most importantly, Arthur discovers that Franco is a very talented writer and that he has a very dangerous gambling problem. 

Letts, the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning August: Osage County, is clearly not afraid to take on familiar tropes—the dysfunctional family in August, the interracial bonding in Donuts—and tweak them so that what might have been stereotypes become instead archetypes with whom we can all identify.  Also, he’s terrific at dialog that can be alternately snappy and poignant.  And, as with August, he’s been blessed with actors who know just how to deliver his lines. 

Donut’s nine-member cast is uniformly superb. Yasen Peyankov is hilarious as Max and Kate Buddeke brings a touching vulnerability to the lady cop. James Vincent Meredith, Jane Alderman, Robert Maffia and Cliff Chamberlain are just as good in smaller roles. And Michael Garvey deserves to be singled out for making an impression in the nearly silent role of  Max's nephew. Director Tina Landau gets kudos for bringing out the best in each of them.  But it’s the performances by Michael McKean as Arthur and Jon Michael Hill as Franco that fuel this production, which originated at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre last year. 

Over the years McKean has played supporting roles ranging from the goofy Lenny on the ‘70s sitcom “Laverne & Shirley” to the sad sack uncle in last season’s revival of Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming. Now, he’s front and center and wonderfully convincing as a man who’s just going through the motions of living. Letts has given Arthur a series of soliloquies about his past as a draft dodger and a failed husband and father.  They might have interrupted the narrative flow but in this actor’s skilled hands they actually deepen the experience of the play.

Hill, just 24 years old, is making his Broadway debut and it’s a sensational one.  He radiates the kind of star presence that makes it hard to take your eyes off him even when he’s painting a wall in the background of a scene (click here to read an interview with him.)  I’m already looking forward to seeing what Hill does next. And in this age of Obama, there’s a good chance that he’ll get a crack at roles that go beyond the street thugs or inspirational sidekicks that young black actors so often have to play. 

In fact, Letts is already expanding the possibilities.  The black cop in Superior Donuts isn’t the usual streetwise or world weary figure we’ve seen in scores of TV cop shows.  He spends his weekends attending "Star Trek" conventions dressed as Captain Sisko, the black captain on the old “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” series.  Similarly, while Franco does inspire changes in Arthur’s life, he doesn’t have to sacrifice his own to do it.  And that alone for me, is worth waving a flag about.

1 comment:

Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

As you know, I've been a huge fan of this show after seeing it premiere in Chicago. And as much as I loved it there, it has even more depth on Broadway. Glad you enjoyed and were surprised.