Volume 79, Number 22 | November 04 - 10, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

THEATER review

Photo by Robert J. Saferstein

Michael McKean and Jon Michael Hill

Superior Donuts’ denizens comtemplate race, class

‘Elegantly written, exquisitely acted’ tale of everyday people

By Scott Harrah

Playwright Tracey Letts — who won the Tony and the Pulitzer Prize for “August: Osage County” — has followed up that acclaimed work by creating one of the most elegantly written, exquisitely acted and directed dramas on Broadway this season.
Like “Osage County,” Chicago’s prestigious Steppenwolf Theater Company originally produced “Superior Donuts.” It cements Letts’ place in the pantheon of such all-American playwrights as Albee, O’Neill, and Miller.

“Superior Donuts” is outstanding because it reflects so many topical issues in America today: aging baby-boomers, race, class, and multiculturalism in urban areas. Michael McKean is superb as Arthur Przybyszewski, the son of Polish immigrants. He’s a self-deprecating old hippie and Vietnam draft dodger who sports tie-dyed T-shirts and a grizzled ponytail.  His family’s business, the eponymous Superior Donuts, is a decrepit donut shop in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood — an area undergoing gentrification.

McKean — best known for playing Lenny on “Laverne and Shirley” and for roles in films such as “This is Spinal Tap” — is the biggest name here; but the lesser-known ensemble cast is also remarkable.  Jon Michael Hill gives a virtuoso performance as the young, quick-witted African-American aspiring writer and donut shop worker Franco Wicks. When he asks Arthur if he’s racist, the donut maker says, “I hired you, didn’t I?”  Franco quips back: “Scoot over, Lincoln. Make room on the penny.” The banter and chemistry between McKean and Hill is natural, engaging, and believable.

Letts’ true gift as a playwright is his ability to make the lives of everyday people look extraordinary. Tina Landau takes that characteristic of Letts’ writing and further elevates the drama by directing everyone with stark realism.  Kate Buddeke, as Officer Randy Osteen (a lady cop with romantic designs on Arthur)  has everything about the character down — from the nasal Chicago accent to her strength and vulnerability as a woman working in a predominantly male field.

Yasen Peyankov is brilliant as Max Tarasov, a Russian immigrant storeowner who befriends Arthur and is interested in buying the space occupied by the troubled donut shop.  Max warns Arthur that his business has become an anachronism because “the donut has been left behind” in the age of Starbucks. These are characters who, despite their ethnic backgrounds, share a common bond of caring and humanity.

James Schuette’s authentic set anchors the show splendidly and is vividly detailed, right down to the dilapidated menu boards with missing letters and a broken clock.

“Superior Donuts” is a working class look at the problems average Americans of all backgrounds and races face in a changing nation.  Letts’ story is sometimes predictable, but he provides a trenchant perspective on Chicago’s ethnic melting pot and the challenges that minorities and social outcasts deal with on a daily basis.

Written by Tracy Letts. Directed by Tina Landau. Open run; at the Music Box Theatre (239 West 45th Street). For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit www.superiordonuts.com.

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