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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at the Music Box


  Jon Michael Hill and Michael McKean/ Ph: Robert J. Saferstein

Don’t go to Tracy Letts’ Superior Donuts expecting another August: Osage County, the epic, hilarious, heartbreaking family drama that won Letts the 2008 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award. But do go to Superior Donuts. It may be a more modest play, but it contains many of the ingredients that made August a critical and popular hit: compelling characters, a well-constructed plot, and a dexterous balance of humor and pathos.
Balancing comedy and tragedy is no mean feat, but Letts does it as well as any living American playwright. Director Tina Landau and the superb eight-person cast—all of whom originated their roles in the Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s 2008 production—help make Superior Donuts as entertaining as it is moving. Thanks to them, Letts’ confection has lost none of its freshness.
The setting is a dingy donut shop in Chicago’s uptown neighborhood. It has just been vandalized, and owner Arthur Przybyzszewsi (Michael McKean) takes in the damage in a daze. Arthur is depressed by the recent death of his ex-wife and has let both the store and himself go. Disheveled in a tie-dyed shirt, ripped jeans, and ’60s ponytail, Arthur doesn’t care that few people come to the store. He’s haunted by his failed marriage, his estranged daughter, and his troubled relationship with his father (who never forgave Arthur for dodging the Vietnam draft).
Arthur’s life gets a jolt when the cheerful Franco Wicks (Jon Michael Hill) takes a job as his assistant. Franco is everything Arthur isn’t—young, black, hip, full of hope, outgoing, and confident. But Franco has made mistakes too, and his past catches up to him. Letts skillfully develops the plot while fleshing out the characters. He interrupts the action several times to let Arthur recall his past in monologues (nicely indicated by a white spotlight). There are a few false moments, as when Franco references colonoscopies and the Lindbergh baby. And a second-act fight isn’t entirely believable; perhaps it looks better from farther away.
Most of Superior Donuts rings true, however, from its depiction of a gentrifying neighborhood to Letts’ light-handed treatment of heavy subjects like racism and Vietnam. As in August: Osage County, there are uproariously funny zingers that keep the often dark material from becoming too gloomy.
McKean, known primarily as a comic actor in movies like Best in Show and A Mighty Wind, gives a deeply felt performance as Arthur. It’s a demanding role that fits him like a glove. He has excellent rapport with Hill, who is equally memorable as Franco. The supporting actors all get moments to shine. Standouts include Jane Alderman’s Lady, a sad old woman who comes to the store for free donuts, and Kate Buddeke’s Officer Randy Osteen, a middle-aged cop who tries to get Arthur to notice her. Letts gives all the actors plenty to work with. Even small roles (including a Dolph Lundgren-esque Russian played by a perfectly cast Michael Garvey) hold our attention and make us laugh. 
Superior Donuts isn’t a meaty three-course meal like August: Osage County, but it’s a treat nonetheless. Here’s hoping New Yorkers line up for this winning and well-acted Chicago import.

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