Tracy Letts' new play 'Superior Donuts' may not be slam-dunk for Broadway

Even though it’s a follow-up to a play that swept essentially every legit award there is, “Superior Donuts” isn’t necessarily a slam-dunk for Broadway.

Playwright Tracy Letts’ latest outing, about the owner of a run-down Chicago donut shop and the young employee he hires, follows the success of Letts’ “August: Osage County,” the family epic that nabbed the 2008 Tony and Pulitzer (among other kudos), launching a national tour and a stint at London’s National Theater.

“Donuts,” in previews and opening Oct. 1 at the Music Box Theater (former home of “August,” which shuttered June 28), was one of the highest-grossing productions ever for Steppenwolf Theater, the Chicago theater that preemed “Donuts” last summer (and also originated “August”).

But in Gotham, the Steppenwolf production, toplined by Michael McKean, comes up against tough odds by the names of Hugh Jackman, Daniel Craig and Jude Law * three stars who open in sky-high-profile Broadway outings within the same two-week period as “Donuts.”

That’s not even mentioning the fact that those associated with the production consider “Donuts,” capitalized at around $2.3 million, a gentle comedy with far less fang-baring than the scathingly witty “August” * so auds expecting another round of gloves-off verbal sparring may be disappointed.

Still, Rialto producers Jeffrey Richards, Jean Doumanian and Jerry Frankel, who also brought “August” to New York, have decided to hawk these “Donuts” because they aim to support not just the play but the writer himself, in a throwback to the days when producers stuck by creatives through thick and thin.

“You make a commitment to an artist and you make a commitment to a company,” Richards says.

As with “August,” the entire Steppenwolf production is transferring to the Rialto, including McKean as the owner of the donut shop and Jon Michael Hill as the young black employee who has a few ideas about how to spruce up the place. Tina Landau (“The Brother/Sister Plays”) helms.

Reviews in Chi were favorable — if not quite as over-the-moon as they were for “August” — and business boomed.

“Audiences in Chicago just loved it, and Jeffrey’s the kind of producer who’s in for the long haul,” says Steppenwolf exec director David Hawkanson. “But how it fits into the New York Broadway season this fall, that’ll be interesting to see.”

Straight play competish for “Donuts” includes not only Craig and Jackman’s box office heavyweight “A Steady Rain” and Law’s “Hamlet,” but also a double-bill of Neil Simon revivals and “Race,” a Richards-Frankel staging of a new play by David Mamet, another scribe to whom they’ve committed (with productions including “Glengarry Glen Ross,” “November” and “Speed-the-Plow”).

Richards, who’s notably devoted to bringing straight plays to the musical-dominated Rialto, says he’s aware of the tough market he’s entering with “Donuts.” After all, he and Frankel have prior experience putting up a Broadway play amid a crowded season of star-filled fare.

Last spring’s jam-packed slate of plays found many well-reviewed dramas struggling to survive. Richards and Frankel’s production of “Blithe Spirit,” starring Angela Lansbury, held its own, but other shows of theirs — an imported Chicago revival of Eugene O’Neill’s “Desire Under the Elms” and the Broadway transfer of MCC Theater’s “Reasons to Be Pretty” by Neil LaBute — never carved out footholds. (Last season the pair also were among the lead commercial producers of the Public Theater’s Tony-winning transfer of “Hair.”)

For “Donuts,” Richards says, “We may have to spend more in getting our message out than a play that has heavyweight stars in it, or a heavyweight title.”

To get auds in early, Richards made the unusual step of asking artistic directors of nonprofits with which he’s worked — MCC, the Public, and the Atlantic Theater Company (which originated “Spring Awakening,” another success for Richards) — to write letters to their constituents tubthumping the play. They all agreed.

For the moment, the media strategy is to hold off on exposure until after the opening, hoping to take advantage of positive reviews in marketing materials.

“We would like to be able to think that word-of-mouth combined with favorable response will provide momentum,” says Richards.

The producer describes the advance as “modest but growing,” adding that the play that comes after the hyped hit can be tricky both for writers and for producers.

“It’s always a challenge for a playwright to come to bat after they’ve written a play like ‘August,’ ” he says. ” ‘Superior Donuts’ is a departure for Tracy, and the challenge is always about what people expect. Audiences expect the next ‘August.’ ”

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