Thursday, October 01, 2009

Superior Donuts

"Superior Donuts" at the Music Box, September 30, 2009

Steppenwolf comes to Broadway, following the success of "August: Osage County" two years ago, once again courtesy of company member Tracy Letts.

From the heat of an Oklahoma summer, now we're in uptown Chicago with winter approaching at Arthur Przybyszewski's shop, Superior Donuts, opened by his immigrant parents in 1950. The neighborhood ain't what it was, nor is the donut shop.

Arthur (Michael McKean) is a 1960's draft dodger (amnesty courtesy of Jimmy Carter) whose fear of confrontation cripples him, ruining his marriage and relationship with his daughter. Divorced for five years, his ex-wife has just died and Arthur is further adrift. The day the shop is vandalized, young Franco (Jon Michael Hill) shows up to apply for the open counter job. All sales from the beginning, he convinces Arthur to hire him, then sets about trying to revive the business. Max (Yasen Peyankov), is a Russian immigrant who owns the electronics shop next door has been after Arthur to sell him the space so he can expand before Best Buy discovers the area and moves in. Franco's own issues soon catch up with him as Luther (Robert Maffia) arrives looking to collect an overdue debt.

Mr. Letts' script slowly reveals bits and pieces of Arthur's past in a series of spotlighted monologues, which I thought worked very well. I'm not usually a big fan of direct address, but the staging and flow make it work. There is a certain "Chico and the Man" aspect in motion, but the play doesn't necessarily suffer from a sitcom feel.

Mr. McKean's Arthur, looking like a Dead-head wannabe with a grey ponytail, scruffy beard and tie-dyed tshirt, suffers miserably over his feelings of loss that are the result of his inability to face and confront his fears. It's an admirable performance. The other supporting players are clear and distinct, each bringing a genuine life to their roles.

It is Mr. Hill as Franco who gets, and makes the most of, the best material. Street-wise, savvy, insightful and clever, his "fatal flaw" remains carefully hidden as he makes an honest attempt to clear up the worries in his life. It's a carefully shaded performance that's certain to bring attention - the kind any young actor strives for.

Director Tina Landau avoids sentimentality with a no-nonsense approach. The last thing I saw her direct was J. M. Barrie's "Mary Rose" at The Vineyard in 2007. These two pieces couldn't be much more different, but there is a common thoughtfulness in both productions.

James Schuette's donut shop, to me, hearkens a bit toward Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks" with its long counter and harsh lighting, courtesy of Christopher Akerlind.

I've got to say, it's looking like another good season for plays on Broadway!

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