nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 4, 2009
Superior Donuts, the new play on Broadway from Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy Letts (August: Osage County), takes place in the store that gives it its title—a modest, rundown, indie donut shop in a rundown but soon-to-be-gentrifying Chicago neighborhood. When the play begins, a couple of cops are investigating an act of vandalism: the store's glass front door has been shattered and the word "pussy" has been spray painted prominently behind the counter. The cops are talking to Max, the Russian guy who owns the DVD shop next door; Max is convinced that the perpetrators are those "black kids" (with apologies to one of the cops, James, who is himself African American). Eventually Arthur, the proprietor of Superior Donuts, arrives. He's jolted, taken aback; from his slightly dazed state he realizes he missed this week's coffee delivery and so James heads over to the nearby Starbucks to get everybody some joe.
This opening scene of Superior Donuts is terrific, immediately involving the audience in the world of the play and making us curious about a whole bunch of stuff. Who did this crime, and why? Why is Arthur so lackadaisical and melancholy (it is mentioned that he's been closing the shop a lot lately)? What's the relationship between Arthur and the lady cop, Randy, who seems to be a bit sweet on him? Who's a "pussy," and why?
The appeal of these first moments of the play owes much to the wonderfully verisimilitudinous set by James Schuette (before the lights went up, folks in the front row were straining to read the menu hanging over the donut counter), and to the excellent naturalistic performances of Michael McKean as Arthur and Kate Buddeke as Randy. I instantly liked and empathized with both of these people; they seemed real to me.
Which is why I was so dismayed to see Superior Donuts fall apart in its successive scenes. Letts loses track of the naturalism which feels so assured in his hands by having Arthur suddenly start confiding in the audience, breaking the fourth wall without motivation or warning. (Director Tina Landau makes things even worse by using a Strange Interlude-ish lighting device that makes sure we are fully distracted from the story when Arthur does his soliloquies.) Believability is sacrificed as soon as Letts introduces his second main character, an African American college dropout named Franco who arrives at the donut shop on the day of the vandalism attack to apply for a job. Franco is cheerful, smart, assertive, confident, charming, talented, suave—and wholly unconvincing, despite actor Jon Michael Hill's good efforts. He's the kind of kid you meet only on a television sitcom. Why Arthur allows him to come to work in his shop is beyond me. Franco is also in Deep Trouble, providing the story with its hook and with a climax that you do not see coming. But instead of creating a relationship between Arthur and Franco that feels organic, Letts makes the two of them act like characters in bad action/horror movies.
By the second act, all is lost: Superior Donuts, instead of being about the way that an aging draft dodger (for that is what Arthur is) finds some kind of peace and redemption through his relationship with the troubled kid who comes to work for him, turns into a Clint Eastwood film. Arthur decides to prove that he's a real man by fighting the mobster who's the source of Franco's problems. The moral of the play seems to be that the way to resolve difficulties is to beat somebody up. I would argue that this is a very bad moral.
McKean holds the stage compellingly throughout, with Buddeke and Robert Maffia (as the gangster) offering strong support. Since most of the characters are written as broad (and sometimes borderline offensive) stereotypes, the rest of the cast has little to do but supply what's requested.
The most disturbing aspect of Superior Donuts for me was the audience's reaction to Arthur's choice: rousing approval, as far as I could tell. Arthur is guilt-ridden over fleeing the draft during the Vietnam War, feeling like a coward because of it. In my day, the young men who left for Canada were viewed as courageous by many, having made a tough and controversial choice based in political and social principles. I guess Letts (and lots of others) don't see things that way nowadays, which is both reductive and very sad.