Monday, June 30, 2008

How Superior Did Critics Find Letts' Donuts?

How Superior Did Critics Find Letts' Donuts?

Last evening, Tracy Letts' Superior Donuts enjoyed its world premiere at Chicago's Steppenwolf. Directed by Tina Landau, Superior Donuts stars Michael McKean (right) and Jon Michael Hill (left), along with James Vincent Meredith, Yasen Peyankov, Jane Alderman, Kate Buddeke, Cliff Chamberlain, Michael Garvey and Robert Maffia.

Critics' sentiments were nearly unanimous in citing Superior Donuts' "sentimental" streak, with most calling it funny and entertaining while predictably drawing inevitable comparisons with August: Osage County.

Crediting Landau for making this an "ideal production," Variety's Steven Oxman provides the most praise: "This is most definitely Letts in a mild, even slightly sentimental mode, although he has such a penchant for dark edges that even his comic work comes with physical and emotional injury. Small in scale and certainly fully accessible, Superior Donuts also shows Letts wading more forcefully into social themes.... But this is also the first play by Letts that's probably best when nothing at all is happening, because while the dialogue is always zesty, the plotting itself is extremely transparent and oddly anti-climactic, never shaking off that sense of being manufactured out of formula.... That said, there are pleasures aplenty. McKean invests Arthur with enough quiet soulfulness to make us care about him, particularly when the character steps forward to deliver his backstory in monologues interspersed between the scenes. And Hill is without question a talent to watch, in a part tailor-made for him."

Advising readers to "Relax. Have a good time," after pointedly noting this is not going to be the next August: Osage County, Chris Jones of The Chicago Tribune waxes largely enthusiastic: "Landau’s humanely and unpretentiously staged premiere enhances a witty, seductive, live-wire and greatly entertaining dark comedy that you just don’t want to end and you just don’t want to miss. The one thing it most assuredly has in common with its illustrious predecessor is that it lands with an audience. A Chicago audience.... It is a meditation on Chicago’s old soul from a writer clearly entranced with the place but disinclined, by temperament, to be sentimental. Letts can write cliches ... But he’s smart enough to undermine and subvert them when they start to bother you.... Thus his newest work is at once a challenge, a comfort and an insouciant pleasure."

While criticizing Superior Donuts for serving "up an admittedly more pedestrian vision" of America than Letts' last effort, Chicago Sun-Times' Hedy Weiss still serves up a "somewhat recommended" rating: "The whole thing has an undeniable zest, but also feels far from seamless as it lurches from behavioral comedy to urban tragedy to social critique. And its characters -- the young genius undone by his not-so-streetwise escapades, the Maalox-gobbling thug, the female cop with hidden baking skills -- all feel like they've been pressed from pre-existing molds.... Letts is a writer who rarely repeats himself, though Superior Donuts, directed by Tina Landau, contains many of his trademarks: a sharply funny offhandedness; a playful social commentary rooted in stereotype, but heightened by a certain mix of braininess and raw earthiness; a slightly off-kilter realism; and a turn-on-a-dime ability to switch moods. And Arthur, one of Letts' most intriguing, deftly drawn characters -- gentle but full of suppressed rage -- is given a marvelously natural and believable performance by McKean."

Calling the show "an intimate, sentimental little comedy," Jeremy Gerard of Bloomberg weighs in with a mixed assessment: "The result is predictable and silly but, as with August: Osage County, extremely entertaining, not to mention a full hour shorter.... Much of the show's charm owes to warm performances elicited by director Tina Landau from the Steppenwolf ensemble. At the top of that list would be Michael McKean, pony-tailed, pot-bellied and hirsute as Arthur, and Jon Michael Hill, who, as ants-in-his-pants Franco defies credulousness.... Sitcom jokes and soul-baring rarely co-exist comfortably in the same script. Letts is ambitious, however, and writes terrific characters. Give him time, not prizes."

Deeming the work as "insubstantial and sweet, with virtually no nutritional value," Charles Isherwood of The New York Times nevertheless admits: "minor though this comedy is, it is also hard to dislike.... The best news about Superior Donuts is probably its unlikeness to any of Mr. Letts’s previous plays.... Superior Donuts is a funny play. It certainly glides by comfortably. But much of the comedy feels tame, safe and solicitous, lacking in the spontaneous acid truth of the flaying insults in August.... Superior Donuts is not a significant play, but Mr. Letts’s willingness to explore new forms, to confound expectations, has its heartening aspects."

Having taken in last evening's premiere of Superior Donuts myself, I'll be providing my own SOB Review shortly.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

Click here for tickets.
Related Stories:
Letts' Superior Donuts Opens Tonight (June 29, 2008)
Tracy Letts On Superior Donuts: "Pressure's Off!" (June 19, 2008)
Looking Forward: The SOB Top Five (January 2, 2008)

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At 01 July, 2008, Blogger Esther said...

I do feel a bit sorry for Tracy Letts. I mean, it was inevitable that whatever he did next would be compared to August: Osage County. (Well, not that sorry. He did win the Pulitzer and the Tony!) But from the reviews, I think Superior Donuts sounds interesting. I like the idea that it's a very Chicago-centered play. And there's nothing wrong with being sentimental! I agree with the Bloomberg critic, who said that Letts writes terrific characters. I think he also writes very witty, searing dialogue, too. Hopefully this will come to New York, maybe off-Broadway even.


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