Monday, June 30, 2008

Superior Donuts (The SOB Review)

Superior Donuts (The SOB Review) - Downstairs Theatre, Steppenwolf, Chicago, IL

**** (out of ****)

How is a hero distinguished from a coward?

In Tracy Letts' profoundly moving new play Superior Donuts, it all comes down to choosing one's battles. Wisely.

Last night, Steppenwolf staged the world premiere production of Letts' first play to be set in his adopted hometown of Chicago. And he does so by placing the action in a most unsentimental place: the city's timeworn Uptown neighborhood, a section of Chicago that's been fighting gentrification for years, yet has somehow remained one of the few true microcosms for the city's cultural diversity and divide alike.

Marking yet another stunning departure from his previous efforts, Letts' Superior Donuts feels so right, including being right up to the minute, replete with local references including that of a stray cougar alongside iconic lore. But Letts is at his best when he's intelligently combatting some urban myths about race.

Which brings me back to the capability for choosing one's battles.

You see, Superior Donuts proprietor Arthur Prysbyszewski (an astonishing and nearly unrecognizable Michael McKean) may have evaded the Vietnam draft forty years ago by heading north to Canada (we learn Arthur's essential backstory via his poignant soliloquies interspersed throughout Superior Donuts), but when his brilliant young employee and promising literary genius Franco Wicks (a wonderfully cocksure Jon Michael Hill) needs a lifeline, something both vital and raw sparks inside Arthur.

So bleak and dreary has Arthur's life become that he hardly seems to notice or care when his dingy little baked goods shop is broken into. Near the beginning of Superior Donuts, Arthur arrives to find two police officers Randy Osteen (Kate Buddeke displaying a heart of gold) and James Hailey (James Vincent Meredith in one of his funniest performances yet) surveying the damage. The duo is taking the statement of Max Tarasov (a delightfully scabrous Yasen Peyankov), the Russian-born electronic shopkeeper from next door, who would stop at nothing to buy-out Arthur's space to enlarge his own store and give Best Buy a run for its money.

With no coffee to offer his lone patron, a street person affectionately referred to simply as Lady (Jane Alderman), Arthur requisitions some java from the other relentlessly encroaching neighborhood pariah. It's as if Arthur has permanently thrown in the towel, resigned to defeat.

That is, until Franco walks into his donut shop to apply for an open position. Before long, it's Arthur who's being interviewed, and recognizing that this is not just another kid from the hood, Arthur hires Franco, a drop-out from a local college who lugs around a foot-thick stack of diaries and papers comprising his great American novel. Franco and Arthur hit it off so well that the budding author lets his boss read the material in exchange for advice on how to snare Randy, all while considering the possibilities that life with a published book and upgraded donut shop could offer.

Despite Franco's book smarts, he's also learned plenty from the streets, including the perils associated with gambling. Seems he's run up a hefty debt that's so large that his newly found minimum wage job could never get him out of it. But there's that beloved book. Franco's great American novel becomes central to the plot as the mob comes looking for their money, sparking Arthur's resolve to finally stand up and redeem himself for something so right.

Thanks in large measure to Tina Landau's loving direction, Superior Donuts feels genuine, gritty and real, right down to its climactic brawl that forever underscores just how clumsy and inept actual fist fights can be. Loy Arcenas adds to the remarkable authenticity with a set design in various stages of disrepair, accentuated further by Chris Akerlind's moody lighting.

But best of all, matching Letts' extraordinarily affecting script is Superior Donuts' exceptional ensemble. Chief among them is the yeoman service of McKean as Arthur who anchors the production in all his humility, however ordinary it may seem. McKean has clearly lost himself in this most unglamorous of roles, but the audience wins as a result. Equally excellent is Hill's Franco, whose tremendous zest for living is infectious, and whose woes make us actually give a damn.

There's a lot more to chew on in Superior Donuts than what's on its surface. In fact, instead of finding a sugary goo, or worse, nothing at all, there's plenty of humanity and heart to be found deep inside of this intelligent and entertaining play.

I absolutely loved this courageous show that truly lives up to its name.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

Click here for tickets.
Related Stories:
How Superior Did Critics Find Letts' Donuts? (June 30, 2008)
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 09 July, 2008, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Post Script: Inevitable comparisons will be made with Tracy Letts' critically-acclaimed masterpiece.

In reviewing this new play, I tried to come at it as if I had never seen the other show - not that the other doesn't matter, but because Superior Donuts deserves to be judged on its own merits.

I remember what the critics used to say about new albums by The Who. Essentially, they said if they were done by anybody else, they would be considered excellent, but because they were by The Who and because they were nothing compared to earlier works, they weren't considered "as good."

Personally, such assessments make me angry. I applaud artists who are willing to stake out new territory and take chances. It's the artists, not the critics, who have the power to captivate and enthrall us with each new story they tell.

And in this case, I think audiences will by touched by what Tracy Letts has written, perhaps even more so than his more celebrated work.

At 09 July, 2008, Blogger Esther said...

Hey Steve,
I've been eagerly awaiting this review and somehow, I missed it!

Anyway, I'm so glad you loved Superior Donuts. It sounds terrific, and I hope it has a life after this Steppenwolf run. I'm really intrigued by the fact that it seems to be so much "about" Chicago. I like works that give you a real sense of the location in which they occur. And it sounds like it has the elements I love the most about Letts' writing: interesting, well-formed characters and sharp, insightful dialog.

And I think your analogy with The Who is a great one. There are actors and writers and musicians whom I love and I'm always interested in their next work. I like to see them try different things, go in unexpected directions. Sure, it's nice to have a beloved artist tread familiar ground every once in awhile, but really that would soon get boring.

At 09 July, 2008, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Thanks Esther - I'm certainly hoping this show gets the wider audience it deserves. It's surprisingly uplifting - and I know I am not the only one who saw it who got a bit misty-eyed.


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