Friday, October 02, 2009

Superior Donuts (The SOB Review)

Superior Donuts (The SOB Review)– Music Box Theatre, New York, New York

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

With nary an empty calorie in sight, Tracy Letts' tasty and satisfying Superior Donuts possesses a filling center that is at once enthralling and profoundly moving. Its shop sits precisely where the American dream -- and all its endless possibilities -- intersects with fears of America lost.

Despite a bit of a makeover from the initial Chicago premiere last year (which I reviewed), including new set design from James Schuette, the essential ingredients Letts has baked into this dramatic comedy are as sweet and savory as ever.

If anything, Tina Landau's sharpened direction enables each of Letts' wide assortment of characters -- each of whom defy any tidy stereotype -- to rise to perfection. As you'd expect from Letts, none of them are wafer-thin, whether it's the sage bag Lady Boyle (Jane Alderman), the rough-edged flirt in Officer Randy Osteen (Kate Buddeke), the seriously serious beam-me-up-fetishist Officer James Hailey (James Vincent Meredith) or the budding Russian tycoon with a soft spot Max Tarasov (Yasen Peyankov). Each of these secondary roles, not to mention the leads, is multi-layered, adding exquisite depth to Letts' overarching effort.

Now make no mistake, if you’re going into Broadway’s Music Box Theatre intent on seeing another August: Osage County, you’re in the wrong place. No one backs Letts into a corner. That doesn't mean he's lost his penchant for fully realized characters. Sure, Superior Donuts has plenty of his trademark ribald barbs, including a sly yet stinging commentary on the status of today’s America that is becoming his signature. Yes, Letts once again explores familial fissures that lead to a breaking point -- a point so bleak that once again one of his principals escapes via self-medication.

Yet in many more ways, Superior Donuts is the antithesis of August: Osage County. His latest work ostensibly leaves its audience with hope rather than despair, a challenge to wake up to the world around us rather than to shut it out. To give a damn and take a stand.

Set amidst an oxymoronically named doughnut and coffee shop in Chicago's timeworn Uptown neighborhood, Letts caffeinates his latest play with an abundance of jolts, literally and figuratively.

On the literal side, you’ll no doubt hear more than you’ll want to know about the show’s pivotal fight scene. Mind you, the contenders are both well past their prime.

In one corner is the nearly sixty year old Arthur Przybyszewski (a breathtaking, brilliant Michael McKean), who has ducked from battles his entire life, whether dodging the Vietnam draft or his own late father who labeled him a coward because he went AWOL. There’s no reason to assume he’d even know how to throw a decent punch. Yet, the young, aspiring writer Franco Wicks (Jon Michael Hill in one of the most astonishing Broadway debuts I've ever seen) has not only helped bring the doughnut shop back to life, but he's also awakened Arthur's soul enough to rejoin the human race and, consequently, to finally take a stand.

In the other corner is Luther Flynn (the aptly named Robert Maffia), a middle-aged hood afflicted by a painful ulcer. As menacing as he'd like to be, he's almost as likely to ask for a drink of milk as he is to ask his minion to do his bidding. It’s no wonder he initially laughs off Arthur’s challenge to fight, perhaps thinking that if even one punch landed in his stomach, he’d be down for the count.

There’s an enormous ineptitude about this fight. It’s not at all in the way that it's staged, but very much in the gritty reality of what you’d expect from two such men. I posit that real fights don’t happen the way they do in movies. Genuine brawls look an awful lot like the clumsy one in Superior Donuts.

As for the figurative jolts, they are liberally scattered throughout. They're not so much like the tiny, inconsequential sprinkles that merely decorate a doughnut top, but more they're a much more richly satisfying food for thought, as well as for the soul.

Having evaded the draft 40 years earlier, Arthur has inadvertently been waging another, longer battle in both his mind and his heart. He wrestles the demons of never having had the opportunity to make peace with his now deceased father. Once he returned to the United States from Canada, Arthur essentially checked out, losing himself in his pot, even as he checked back into the business his father created. He doesn't even seem to notice or care when his shop has been broken into.

But he receives a major jolt when Franco Wicks walks into Superior Donuts. Heavy on dreams and loaded with his foot-thick "Great American Novel," Franco triggers something in Arthur's heart and soul. With remarkable finesse, due in large part to the charming Hill's nuanced performance, Franco challenges him as few have, reawakening his spirit and making him care.

To witness Jon Michael Hill spar with Michael McKean is a theatrical joy to behold -- a pleasure that comes along on the stage all too infrequently. Of course, Letts' superb gift for delivering the goods via perfect-pitched dialogue comes through yet again, and fortunately, Hill and McKean powerfully imbue their roles with emotional honesty. There's nothing treacly about them or Superior Donuts.

As I've said before, there's plenty of humanity and heart to be found deep inside of this intelligent and entertaining play. I absolutely love this courageous show and the fact it truly lives up to its name.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

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At 02 October, 2009, Blogger Esther said...

Great review, SOB! You make me even more excited seeing Superior Donuts.

I'm glad it has Tracy Letts' sharp dialogue and memorable characters, both of which I loved from August: Osage County. But I'm glad it's also different because I like it when an artist moves in a new direction.

I like the part about the intersection of the American Dream and America lost. I'm seeing Ragtime, which is also about the American Dream, the same day I'm seeing Superior Donuts. So there'll be lots of food for thought!


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