Tracy Letts continues to surprise. If nothing in his scrappy earlier work like “Killer Joe” or “Bug” suggested the epic family annihilation to come in “August: Osage County,” then there was also no reason to expect the creator of the bilious Weston clan to follow with a minor-key comedy-drama, laced through with tenderness and even a sweet vein of sentimentality. The writing is often formulaic and the conclusion contrived, but “Superior Donuts” is a soulful play, full of humor and humanity. Tina Landau’s entertaining production for Steppenwolf offers much to savor in the ensemble’s gently nuanced performances, particularly those of leads Michael McKean and Jon Michael Hill.
Setting is Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, but the play functions as an elegy for those parts of any American city where multi-generation family-run and independent businesses have been forced to make way for Starbucks and Whole Foods — places whose disenfranchised locals no longer recognize them as home. It’s also a play about the American Dream, erased individualism, rueful middle age, atonement and reawakening — areas in which it doesn’t entirely avoid cliche.
That said, the central relationship is drawn with deep affection, and Letts’ dialogue is so crisp and flavorful it’s no struggle just to relax into the story’s mostly mellow mood and overlook its lapses into implausibility.
The son of a Polish-Russian immigrant couple, Arthur Przybyszewski (McKean) owns a shabby donut-and-coffee shop, lovingly rendered in all its lived-in detail by designer James Schuette. A former ’60s radical who has retreated deep within himself, Arthur runs the establishment with the same distanced, distracted air with which he greets its handful of customers, including local cop Randy (Kate Buddeke), whose awkward romantic overtures fly right by him. He seems barely troubled when the shop is vandalized in what appears a personal attack, instead relishing the quiet time at the end of the day when he flips over the “closed” sign and sparks up a joint.
The unhurried first act introduces a colorful assortment of Superior Donuts regulars: hardened but still hopeful Randy and her “Star Trek”-fanatic patrol partner James (James Vincent Meredith); cranky, probably homeless alcoholic eccentric Lady Boyle (Jane Alderman); and Max (Yasen Peyankov), the excitable Russian who owns the DVD outlet next door.
Letts riffs amusingly on “The Cherry Orchard” with the latter character, played with irresistible spirit by Peyankov and clearly modeled on Chekhov’s upwardly mobile former peasant Lopakhin. Max is keen to buy the shop from Arthur, facilitating his expansion into electronics. He’s unconcerned about competition from Best Buy, claiming he has the edge thanks to “the personal touch. And Croatian pornography.”
The play’s easygoing rhythms pick up speed with the arrival of Franco Wicks (Hill), a livewire 21-year-old African-American, who’s “taking a break” from college and needs a job. The bantering dynamic established here is not unfamiliar: out-of-touch older character prodded back to life by a galvanizing younger one, their quarrelsomeness gradually evolving into friendship. But the sitcom mold is freshened by the fine work of McKean, wearing his sorrow and resignation like an old overcoat; and by the tremendously talented Hill, who explodes onto the stage full of infectious energy and attitude.
Franco begins by suggesting expanding into healthier-eating alternatives, improving customer service, extending opening hours and even trying out poetry readings: “Poets can’t pay the rent but they drink coffee like a mo’fucker.” He then aims his constructive criticism at tie-dyed, scraggly Arthur’s sartorial and grooming habits: “Let me tell you who looks good in a ponytail: Girls and ponies.”
Letts is too shrewd a writer to indulge in these makeover fantasies, bursting the bubble of Franco’s grand plans via Arthur’s inescapable pessimism. “The root of the Polish character is hopelessness,” he explains in one of the monologues that punctuate the action, isolated by Christopher Akerlind in gentle spotlight in a style that borrows from Tennessee Williams. Through this device we learn of Arthur’s Vietnam draft evasion, his rift with his father, the failure of his marriage and estrangement from his daughter.
August Wilson used a diner counter as the springboard for personal and social history more seamlessly in “Two Trains Running,” but Letts keeps the audience absorbed in his story and emotionally invested in its characters.
The play’s chief weaknesses are in its major conflicts. Franco’s gambling debts feel more like a necessity to introduce the threat of violence than an organic part of the character. And his claim of having produced the Great American Novel is fine until narrative convenience dictates that only one copy written in longhand exists. Similarly artificial is the redemptive fight Arthur gets into when he stands up to the thugs who have taken advantage of Franco. Landau and fight director Rick Sordelet’s carefully choreographed staging of this scene further weighs on its impact.
But regardless of the derivative aspects of its characters, and situations that feel too forcefully shaped, “Superior Donuts” is oddly satisfying. Maybe it’s the heartfelt nature of Letts’ love letter to a changing Chicago. Or maybe it’s just the spark of a writer whose words are so alive with poignancy and wit that they take hold of you even in a less than perfect context.