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‘Superior Donuts’ From Pulitzer Prize-Winning Playwright Tracy Letts a Chicago Dish, Albeit a Stale One

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Average: 3 (2 votes)
HollywoodChicago.com Comedy/Tragedy Rating: 3.0/5.0
Rating: 3.0/5.0

CHICAGO – I wouldn’t have wanted to be Tracy Letts on Saturday afternoon. After winning both the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award for his opus “August: Osage County,” he had to have been feeling the tremendous pressure being placed on his newest work and first comedy “Superior Donuts”.

With a slew of Chicago critics, New York critics and high-end producers in attendance, the audience expectations on June 28, 2008 before the lights went down on the Steppenwolf Theatre’s main Chicago stage were almost palpable.

This begs the question: What happens when a celebrated playwright who has swept almost every theatre award imaginable for his famous family drama attempts a follow up to his artistic breakthrough?

Well, if you’re looking to catch another pre-Broadway hit, you may want to look elsewhere. For one thing, “Superior Donuts” is self-aware, unambitious and almost lackadaisical. “August: Osage County,” on the other hand, delved into the meat and potatoes of the human experience, this one merely attempts to scratch its sugary surface.

Ensemble member Jon Michael Hill (left) and Michael McKean in Superior Donuts, which is written by ensemble member Tracy Letts and directed by ensemble member Tina Landau
Ensemble member Jon Michael Hill (left) and Michael McKean in “Superior Donuts,” which is written by ensemble member Tracy Letts and directed by ensemble member Tina Landau.
Photo credit: Michael Brosilow

Having just finished the script in Jan. 2008, Letts describes “Superior Donuts” as his “love letter to Chicago”. As an Oklahoma native, Letts was encouraged by the ethnic diversity and pride that filled the city’s streets to tell a story reflecting this culture.

Though his abilities as an artist and playwright are almost inarguable, Letts’ “love letter to Chicago” seems to begin with the phrase “roses are red, violets are blue”. It’s too derivative to be substantial.

Ensemble members Yasen Peyankov (left) and James Vincent Meredith in Superior Donuts
Ensemble members Yasen Peyankov (left) and James Vincent Meredith in “Superior Donuts”.
Photo credit: Michael Brosilow

The story takes place at the establishment of the piece’s title. Superior Donuts is an Uptown Chicago donut shop that seems to be home to more decrepit furniture, grease and graffiti (the main wall reads “pussy” in spray paint) than tasty pastries.

Michael McKean plays a schmucky owner named Arthur Przbyszewski. He’s a passive and unobservant yet lovable, ex-1960s war protester who halfheartedly runs the shop he inherited from his Polish father.

Citing Starbucks as the monstrous evil villain, Arthur laments the oncoming gentrification of a part of Chicago that was once rich with diversity and vibrant with the hope of a better future for its inhabitants. McKean portrays Arthur with respectable subtlety and charm.

He also manages to ease through Brechtian monologues that had the potential to muddle and halt the action.

Just when Arthur is pondering selling the shop to Max Tarasov – a stout Russian immigrant with his eye on business expansion (played charmingly by Yasen Peyankov) – in walks catalytic Franco Wicks to assist him in the fry shop.

Wicks is a young, bright and energetic African-American boy who plans to make a name for himself with his own opus: his great American novel. Almost a direct metaphor for “August: Osage County,” Wicks sees his own story (“America Will Be”) as his one-way ticket out of a lackluster town.

It’s also his payback ticket for the whopping debt that needs to be paid due to a few rather unbelievable dealings with loan sharks. New ensemble member Jon Michael Hill is a lightning bolt on stage in this role. Supremely gifted and energetic, he brings a fresh air not only to the piece but to the entire Steppenwolf stage.

Ensemble member Jon Michael Hill (left) and Michael McKean (right) in Superior Donuts, which is written by ensemble member Tracy Letts and directed by ensemble member Tina Landau
Ensemble member Jon Michael Hill (left) and Michael McKean in “Superior Donuts,” which is written by ensemble member Tracy Letts and directed by ensemble member Tina Landau.
Photo credit: Michael Brosilow

After some frustration, Franco and Arthur soon develop a sweet yet painfully contrived friendship that’s all-too reminiscent of movies like “Dangerous Minds” and “Finding Forrester”. Here we see the typical relationship between the white elder in desperate need of a new breath of life and the tenacious yet troubled, inner-city teenager who will be doing the breathing.

“I hate to break it to you, but the Grateful Dead ain’t gonna hire another guitar player,” Franco spews before a trite, dopey, guy-gets-a-makeover scene that’s more Disney gimmick than literary device. Franco also helps Arthur learn to be more romantically assertive with a harsh yet coquettish cop (Randy Osteen) who’s blatantly more interested in the shop’s owner than its oily delicacies.

It is scenes and structures like these that lead to the déjà-vu feeling of the show.

It’s a story that’d ring true for many audience members: a tale of a beloved but rough town whose very soulfulness is being lost to big business. Still, it’s chock full of the absurd: campy bad guys clad in overcoats, overused “Star Trek” nerds-are-funny jokes, jabs at Starbucks and even some unsettling jeers at the gay community.

The second act falls victim to an ineffective stage combat scene, after-school special dialogue and a predictable ending.

RELATED SLIDESHOW
StarSee our seven-slide slideshow of “Superior Donuts” production stills.

RELATED READING
StarMore theater reviews from critic Alissa Norby.

The acting is proficient, though, and the set, lighting and directing are all more than pleasing to the mind. While unexpected, it’s ultimately the script that leaves the piece feeling vapid. I just couldn’t shake the feeling that I had seen this same show many, many times before.

But for all its cliché silliness, “Superior Donuts” delivers a treat to the proud Chicagoan. The script is infused with gleeful references to Roscoe Village, Old Town, Jefferson Park and even the loose cougar that recently made its way through our neighborhood streets. Letts clearly loves this town and he knows his audience does, too.

With Chi-town quips that would make you just as proud of our hot dogs and deep-dish pizza as it would our rich history, the show really does feel like our city’s story. That would ultimately do well for anyone’s palate.

“Superior Donuts” runs every day of the week except Monday at various times through Aug. 24, 2008 (extended from Aug. 17) at the Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre at 1650 N. Halsted St. in Chicago. For tickets or more information, visit this special link for free to half-price tickets!


For a complete listing of all shows and reviews in Chicago, visit our partner TheatreInChicago.com. For half-price Chicago theater tickets, visit our partner Goldstar.

HollywoodChicago.com staff writer Alissa Norby

By ALISSA NORBY
Staff Writer
HollywoodChicago.com
alissa@hollywoodchicago.com

© 2008 Alissa Norby, HollywoodChicago.com

ShowGoer's picture

Donuts

Wow - I thought that review was really unfair… especially the line about unsettling jeers at the gay community. Are you referring to the patchouli line? Really?

Alissa Norby's picture

Re: Donuts

ShowGoer,

I am sorry that you felt the review and analysis of “Superior Donuts” was too harsh. I felt as though I presented a fair and balanced treatment of the show by providing an appropriate amount of justifiable criticism while pointing out its good features. As much as I enjoyed the show and I certainly am a fan of Letts’ other work, it is my job as a reviewer to analyze the aspects of a production that I feel do not work in its benefit. Therefore it was my opinion that overused devices such as “gay” jokes did not have much of a place in a professional production from one of this country’s leading theatre ensembles, especially one that is known for its cutting-edge and high quality level of work. I pointed out this specific weak spot as one example of the aspects of the show that I found trite and commonplace for a group like Steppenwolf and for a playwright such as Letts.

But I invite your opinions on the show and would like to receive your feedback on any of the shows I review. Thank you for your response.

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