Friday, November 06, 2009

Better Than Doughuts For Dinner

Photo credit: Robert J. Saferstein

There is an exchange in [title of show] where Hunter Bell is worried that his show will be doughnuts for dinner--"It sounds like a good idea, but 30 minutes later you're hungry for something a little meatier." Superior Donuts avoids this fate--I was still satisfied even half-an-hour after I left the theater. Incidentally, you can actually eat doughnuts for dinner in the lobby of the Music Box Theatre, where the show is playing. My friend said they were delicious, even at the outrageous price of $4.

Superior Donuts is Tracy Letts' follow-up to his Pulitzer and Tony prize winning August: Osage County. This play is radically different than its predecessor in scope and mood, but no less compelling.

Like August, you won't find a star's name above the title, but the name of the Chicago theater company where it originated, Steppenwolf. The company was brought over from that production. The biggest star is Michael McKean, known for roles in Laverne and Shirley and Christopher Guest films. McKean plays Arthur Przybyszewski, owner of a Chicago doughnut shop and former draft evader (as he describes it). His only employee recently quit, so he hires Franco Wicks (Jon Michael Hill). Where Arthur is reserved and broken-down, Franco is full of hope (he claims to have written the great American novel) and oozing with charisma. The two form an unlikely friendship. This seems like a formula for a classic buddy comedy, and yes, the laughs are frequent, but there are some touching moments, including a truly heartbreaking scene which had everyone in the audience audibly gasping. Though this play is definitely sentimental, it always feels honest, and that is no small feat. The only missteps are Arthur's internal monologues. This is not the fault of McKean's understated performance, and I understand that Letts wants us to know about Arthur's past and the character is unable to actually tell Franco these things, but this device breaks up the flow of the play.

James Schuette's set is a perfect approximation of an old doughnut shop, down to the missing letters on the menu. Although, it didn't make sense that the doughnuts were never adequately stocked when the only customers seem to be Randy (Kate Buddeke), a tough female cop carrying a torch for Arthur, her Star Trek-loving partner James (James Vincent Meredith), and an alcoholic named Lady Boyle (an equally hilarious and touching Jane Alderman). Tina Landau expertly directs her terrific cast. It sounds like a cliche to say it, but there is not a weak link among them. They so fully embody their characters that they never seem like they are acting.

It's hard to pick a standout among such a cast, but the real breakthrough of this play is Jon Michael Hill. He lights up the stage with his energetic performance. This is only the first of what I hope will be many Broadway performances from him.


Esther said...

I saw Superior Donuts a couple weeks ago and I loved it. Sure, it's different from August, which I also loved, but just as compelling in its own way. If August was about how we treat each other as a family, Superior Donuts is how we treat each other as neighbors, a community, Americans.

Michael McKean and Jon Michael Hill had the best chemistry of any pair I saw on my recent trip to Broadway - including Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig.

Hill is terrific - I was laughing at Franco's banter with Arthur and I teared up when he pulled his "novel" out of his backpack and started quoting Langston Hughes. And how great to see a portrait of a young black man who's smart and witty and literary and not a rapper or an athlete.

And I know what you mean about the collective gasp from the audience.

I understand what you're saying about McKean's asides where he talks about his background. They do take you out of the play a bit but I honestly didn't find them to be that big of a problem.

So far, this is my Broadway show of the fall. I'd go back and see it again if I lived closer.

Linda said...

Thank you so much for your comments, Esther. I completely agree with you about everything, except I still don't like the monologues. It's just a minor complaint though, definitely not enough to ruin my enjoyment of the play.