The Music Box, NYC
Tracy Letts has received deserved acclaim with his production of “August: Osage County” which is winding up its run at the Ahmanson and which last year won the Pulitzer and Tony Award for Best Play. With “Superior Donuts” he lightened his tone.
Set in the eponymous Chicago café, the story involves the shop owner’s unlikely friendship with a recent hire. Michael McKean’s character (Arthur Przybyszewski) is mostly in a reactive role, seemingly numb to the declining fortunes of his donut shop. In walks Franco Wicks, played by the sterling Jon Michael Hill, who talks his way into a job. Their friendship grows in fits and starts.
Arthur occasionally breaks the fourth wall, speaking to the audience with backstory. The exposition helps define his character, and is only mildly distracting. Mostly, however, we are treated to the witty dialogue proffered by Franco. It is Franco who slowly edges Arthur from his lethargy. Supporting roles of the neighbor proprietor (Yasen Peyankov as Max) and local recovering alcoholic (Jane Alderman as Lady) are well-played, as is Kate Buddekke as a police officer somewhat inexplicably interested in Arthur.
The cast’s dialogue propels the play, and the story arc is engaging. The first act moves a bit slowly, spending too much time on Arthur’s melancholia. The second act is snappier, with loose threads being tied together in satisfying fashion.
The set by James Shuette is perfectly evocative of a rundown corner of Chicago’s uptown neighborhood. McKean, last seen onstage with his fellow Spinal Tap members in their “Unwigged and Unplugged” tour, has impeccable comic timing and uses it to great effect in “Superior Donuts.” His stout physicality is put through its paces in a fight sequence, but the rising star of the production is undoubtedly Hill. His involvement with the Steppenwolf Theatre and his Midwest roots are ideal for the role. As the young man trying to pull himself beyond his circumstances, Hill balances the character’s duality as both an aspiring author and a neophyte donut maker.
Ultimately, “Superior Donuts” rests on the superb writing of Letts. In terms of a Venn Diagram, he is certainly at the only intersection of actors appearing on “Seinfeld” and recipients of a Pulitzer Prize.