By Tracy Letts
Directed by Tina Landau
The Music Box Theater, New York City
With Michael McKean, Jane Alderman, Kate Buddeke, Cliff Chamberlain, Michael Garvey, Jon Michael Hill, Robert Maffia, James Vincent Meredith, Yasen Peyankov
There’s an undercurrent of stark realism running through Tracy Letts’s Superior Donuts that has the capacity to intrigue and uplift all at once, though it never really does. This play about folksy eccentrics treading water and grasping onto familiarity in a gentrifying Chicago neighborhood is, at its core, an iteration of the timeless story of communities glimpsing the unknown, standing in opposition to a changing world, and eventually capitulating to it. Of course, as with any new addition to a classic genre, the devil is in the details, and that’s where Superior Donuts disappoints. What makes the play unexceptional is that Letts seems content to paint in broad strokes and soft focus, and falls back on easygoing sitcom conventions. He depicts neither the urban environment nor the tired stock characters with the specificity we need to feel their pain and joy, and to really know them. Because the play is so slight, the results are amiable but uninspired, despite being enlivened by a handful of terrific performances.
There’s charm and easy laughs to be had in this story of regulars who patronize a modest donut shop. Aging proprietor Arthur Przybyszewski (Michael McKean) is unfazed and dispassionate after an obscenity is graffitied on his wall; he is so withdrawn from life and himself that only an idealistic, bright-eyed protégée could shake things up. Fortunately for Arthur, and unfortunately for audiences expecting to be surprised, that’s pretty much what happens. A funky neighborhood youth, Franco Wicks (Jon Michael Hill), charms his way into a job as Arthur’s assistant. Watching Mr. McKean and Mr. Hill interact is a casual pleasure, the former understated and avuncular, the latter punchy and expressive. Franco is full of suggestions about making the shop hipper (putting up yoga flyers and hosting poetry night) and he hauls around a massive rubber-banded bundle of mismatched notebooks that contains his great American novel; he is disarmingly self-conscious about letting others read it. Arthur knows someone in publishing and promises to pass the manuscript along (evidently neither has heard of the dead-end slush pile where such manuscripts typically end up).
Franco has skeletons in the closet and will pay for them dearly by the play’s end, but he remains a device. A cheerful and innocuous African-American 21-year-old in the hokey sitcom tradition, his character is there to serve Arthur’s dramatic arc – so it’s no surprise that Franco is the one who suffers losses to buy Arthur’s emotional reawakening. We know next to nothing about his family or what his book is about; it hardly matters. For a play that nurtures a gentle, liberal social consciousness, this seems like an ironic negligence, and one that makes this father-son relationship feel inorganic. Arthur’s occasional monologues to the audience are much more distracting than illuminating, and the anger and disappointment that he seems to have repressed for years never combust. Both protagonists are ciphers, albeit portrayed with sensitivity and care, and often endearingly so.
Thankfully there are supporting weirdos to flesh out the neighborhood, the most memorable of which is Max Tarasov (Yasen Peyankov), a brash Russian store owner who wants to buy Arthur’s shop to expand his adjacent video emporium and corner the local market on niche pornography. Superior Donuts treads the PC line carefully, but there is a scene in which Max chugs vodka while wearing a tracksuit at the very same time; praise the comedy gods! His heart is as big as his chest is hairy, but also, refreshingly, he wants something. As funny as Mr. Peyankov gets, Max’s hunger and impatience give the play a dramatic engine. Likewise Robert Maffia, as a menacing loan shark who is a relatively compassionate and neighborly guy in a harsh profession. These are two characters who blow hot and cold and who, unlike Arthur, are not caught in a fog of halfhearted inactivity. Perhaps inevitably, these are the characters who tangibly persevere, while Franco and Arthur enjoy their moral victories and continue to hope, passively and quietly, that their luck will change in this cutthroat new world.
Franco’s book is called “America Will Be” – a nice sentiment, and a hollow one, much like the play. Superior Donuts sets up the themes that make for great theater, but follows through in a way that makes for agreeable television: soothing, anachronistic, and comfortable.