Friday, October 09, 2009

Tasty Empty Calories! - Superior Donuts - Theatre Review

Superior Donuts - Music Box Theatre - Broadway - New York City, NY - ***1/2 (out of 5)
Written by Tracy Letts, Directed by Tina Landau
Note: Review based on a preview performance. Opened Oct. 1st 2009

It's hard to talk about this play without acknowledging that Tracy Lett's first won Broadway hearts with his previous play August: Osage County that won the Tony, the Pulitzer and every other award around. And while the world over thought that A: OC was the next coming of the American play, I however did not. I thought it was a highly entertaining play, but was basically a play about "White people in middle America with drinking and taboo problems AGAIN?". Still, the acerbic bite and the constant shocking reveals (like a soap opera on speed) along with a top notch cast made it a fun wild ride on the spinning tea cups.

Well, Tracy Lett's latest Broadway offering Superior Donuts, again like A: OC, transferred directly (with cast intact) from Chicago's Steppenwolf's Theatre Company, but Superior Donuts takes a softer, more heartfelt side to life, one that resembles the bygone days of a 70's sitcom when quirky characters come and go from a central ordinary setting.

Alas, the play is set in the current, and Arthur Przybyszewski (Michael McKean) owns a hand me down donut shop in a working class section of Chicago. The place may be called Superior Donuts, but its life may be fading fast, and hippie and war-dodger Arthur seems okay with it, even when vandalism hits his little donut shop.

The play starts moving when a young black man Franco Wicks (Jon Michael Hill) comes in looking for a job, and the lives of the hippie Pollock and the young black man with a secret penchant for gambling, but an ambition to become the next great American writer, ties together as the play spins around their increasing friendship.

When an Italian Mob boss (Robert Maffia, above with Chamberlain) and his henchman (Cliff Chamberlain) decide they need the money back owed from Franco, Arthur tries to intervene to some dramatic results.

Throw in a regular Crazy Lady customer (Jane Alderman), two regular cops (Kate Buddeke and James Vincent Meredith, above with Peyankov) and a nosy Russian neighbour (a hilarious and scene stealing Yasen Peyankov, below with McKean) and his nephew (Michael Garvey), and all is set for an enjoyable evening of theatre with some funny laughs, a brewing romance, and some drama of the budding relationship and Franco's gambling past.

It's all amusing but while it hints at reaching to further depths (especially with some oddly directed interior monologues spoken directly to the audience by Arthur) on issues around personal responsibility (the importance of Arthur continuing to run the now-failing family business, his escape to Canada during the war, Franco's gambling habits, the great novel he just wrote) and some great chemistry between a terrific Broadway newcomer Jon Michael Hill as Franco and Michael McKean's Arthur, it's all stuff I feel I've seen before on TV (gasp! yes I said it), and for that matter, better and more deeply investigated. If you want a great Young Black Man looking for a future and adult advice via a White Man, no one did it better than S3 of Friday Night Lights. Want the quirky banter and characters? Any of those sitcoms on Nick at Night will probably do, as there seems to be bits of Alice, Night Court, Cheers, All in the Family all thrown in. Then add a gangster thread in, and voila. Superior Donuts!

Which again, isn't to say the play isn't worthy. It's a good play. One I enjoyed watching. But one I walked away from amused, but not provoked nor emotionally gutted. Then again, the woman next to me was bawling her eyes out by the end of the play so maybe I'm just a stone. But I found the play never had enough time (and this is where TV automatically now has that added advantage, and why shows like FNL, Mad Men or anything on HBO/Showtime can go further into mining the emotional depth of any situation that a play just cannot do nowadays) to fully explore all the issues it wanted to mine. It's why I would say it's a play you don't have to rush out to see, but is still entertaining when you do.

In fact, it's kind of like a donut. Tasty and gives you that initial sugar rush of fatty deliciousness, but in the end, you'll be yearning for a full meal with more nutrients and sustenance.

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