It's geuninely fascinating to contemplate even the by-line “by Tracy Letts” on a new play, because you never know where he'll take you next. I would never have predicted August: Osage County from the same computer keyboard that produced the trailer trash noir-ishness of Killer Joe and the pathological paranoia of Bug; and it's as big a leap from his last to the comedy-drama that is Superior Donuts.
In some ways it explores a familiar trope (or at least familiar to those of us whose memories go back far enough): its main character is a white, older middle aged city neighborhood shop owner, emotionally frozen over unresolved grief, who—at first reluctantly, but with increasing commitment—develops a relationship with an inner city ethnic kid, who winds up helping out at the store and becoming a surrogate son. Previous examples that come to mind are Sidney Lumet's film of Edward Lewis Wallant's novel The Pawnbroker (screenplay by “I Spy” show-runners Morton Fine & William Friedkin), which explored the dynamic tragically; and Rod Serling's teleplay A Storm in Summer, which did so sentimentally.
Mr. Letts, however, in his new millennium variation, brings his own combination of dramatic colors into play, never so tragically that the audience is denied a mainline shot of feelgood by evening's end; yet never so light that the enterprise feels superficial. It's an admirable and perhaps even remarkable balance, not easy to achieve. It requires a sure, controlled hand and sufficiently layered characterizations. Here we find the shop owner to be second generation donut shop proprietor Arthur Przbyszewski (Michael McKean), a burned out, closet intellectual, with a deceased ex-wife and an estranged daughter, for both of whom he still mourns. The kid is Franco Wicks (Jon Michael Hill), African-American, freshman college age, quick-witted, sassy, shamelessly candid—with aspirations, potential, talent—and serious time-sensitive troubles—far beyond what you’d expect from him at first meeting. (Well, beyond what you’d expect if you were Arthur; we savvy audience members are primed for surprises.) The entirety of the action takes place on what at first seems a surprisingly cramped set, about as much dimension as an actual donut shop (expertly designed by James Schuette), but it turns out to provide an intriguingly wide-enough canvas.
Also figuring into the mix are two beat cops, one of whom has an eye for Arthur (Kate Buddeke) and her black partner, whose friendship is more platonic (James Vincent Meredith). There’s also Max, the immigrant Russian DVD store owner who wants to buy Arthur’s shop (Yasen Peyankov), and a couple of less savory types whose interests I’ll leave you to discover (Robert Maffia, Cliff Chamberlain).
Under Tina Landau’s brisk yet sensitive direction, all the characters pop satisfyingly, but—as appropriate—it’s the central pair that truly lands with force, in part because the matches of performers to roles create the illusion of inseparability. Mr. McKean has the quiet timing and centeredness of an old master; and Mr. Hill has an extravagant, yet unforced streetwise bravado to provide perfect balance. They don’t play the characters so much as embody them.
I have any carp about the play, I’m not sure its ultimate resolution is its
optimum ending. I think all that comes before braces us for something a little
bigger, a somewhat more—I can’t think of a better way to put
it—full-body catharsis. But that said, it’s not a bad ending; and maybe
it’s even the right one. With Superior Donuts so superior a play, it behooves one not to
complain too much about whether one personally prefers jelly-filled or frosted…
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