By Harry Haun
02 Oct 2009
|Photo by Aubrey Reuben|
Talk about hard acts to follow (in this case, three acts), Tracy Letts had to follow his multiple award-winning August: Osage County into the Music Box Theatre Oct. 1 with Superior Donuts, and, no matter how "superior" it says it is, the weight of its predecessor's prizes makes just taking pen-in-hand heavy lifting. "Actually, it wasn't as hard to write with Mt. Everest sitting on my chest because it's just such a different kind of play," the author said, relieved and unwinding at his opening-night party at the Red Eye Grill after this heady mountain climb. "This play is in a different vein. It really doesn't explore much the same sort of territory as August, so this made it easier — not to try to revisit that material."
Instead of an operatically dysfunctional dynasty on the Oklahoma plains, we are now confronted with the trickle of faithful customers still patronizing Superior Donuts, a modest little coffee-and-donut dive in a seedy stretch of Chicago's Uptown.
Gentrification is just around the corner, with a business-draining Starbucks leading the charge. Arthur Przybyszewski (Michael McKean), the proprietor of the family store, is also feeling the pinch, and pitch, of the Russian shopkeeper next door, Max Tarasov (Yasen Peyankov), who is itching to expand his DVD business.
Think "Chico and the Man," then add Letts' gift for depth and surprise in what seems to be easily-read characters. The original Steppenwolf Theatre Company cast of nine, directed by Tina Landau, make the most of the writing and individualize their roles.
To get Donuts into the superior league, Letts put in a year of rewriting and rethinking the play since it premiered at his Steppenwolf home-base in July of 2008.
"It's changed a lot," the playwright admitted. "For one thing, the country's changed a lot since I first did it. In the past 15 months, we've had the election of Obama and the economic collapse, which is the biggest economic disturbance in this country since The Depression, so it has affected the play a great deal. I wanted this play to reflect current times so there were tweaking and changes to accommodate that.
"I'm happiest that this play is life-affirming, that it's joyous. I have a long-standing discussion with my brother, who's a musician. He has always argued with me that it's harder to say something life-affirming in art than it is to say something cynical — at least it's harder to do it in a way that's not soppy or pandering — so I'm happy that this play, I think, ends on a hopeful note. After the death of my father, going back to work on a play, it just didn't seem right to put something negative out in the world. It felt really important to me to put something really positive out in the world."
Dennis Letts was the cowboy-poet patriarch of August, who only lived through the first scene (a near-monologue), and he played it valiantly until shortly before his death. "It was great for both of us," his son admitted. "You know, at the time, when my father got sick and after he passed away, a lot of people would say, 'Isn't that great?' I would just want to punch them in the nose because I felt like my father had just died and nothing about it feels great, but, as time goes on, I'm able to look back at the time and say, 'I'm so glad that we had that together before he passed.'"
Occasionally, his new opus goes off on specialized riffs that reflect some heavy-duty researching. You pick up a lot of donut history here. Then, there's a scene where Franco challenges Arthur to name ten black poets. After a good start, he stammers and stalls, prompting Franco to crack: "It's like watching George Bush on 'Jeopardy.'"
"I want to admit that, when I started writing the play, I don't think I could have named ten black poets," Letts allowed. "It's actually fun to throw that out into the audience 'cause you can see the looks on people's faces as they go, 'Well, I wonder if I could name ten black poets.' I thought it was cheating just to go to Wikipedia and look up black poets, so I did actually do some research. I got some collections, that sort of thing. I tried not to take the short cuts — to at least read some of the poems.
"The whole play has grown and deepened. They always liked it in Chicago, but the actors did a lot of it themselves, just deepening their work. Then, I found an opportunity to tailor it for the actors a little bit — so that was what I decided to do."
As with August: Osage County, Letts used his history with specific actors to help him form their characters. Hill, Peyankov and James Vincent Meredith hail from the Steppenwolf fold; the rest are Chicago actors, most of them making their Broadway debuts. "I know them all," confessed Letts. "Some of them are members of my ensemble. Some of them are old friends. A couple of them are new friends. We've become very close as a group, as an ensemble — and yet it was one of the things I knew. Because I'm also an actor, I tend to start tailoring the clothing a little bit for the actor who's wearing it. I think the play's more successful as a result."
Playwriting-wise, "I just did an adaptation of Three Sisters that I think we're going to put up at Steppenwolf the following season." And, earlier on opening day, Anna D. Shapiro, his Tony-winning August director, staged a reading of Man from Nebraska, the play he wrote before August. Brian Kerwin had the title role, having originated it at its South Coast Rep premiere four years ago. Jim True Frost, Lois Smith, John Cullum and Marin Mazzie co-starred.
"It went fine," Letts had to admit. "We had a great time. I hadn't heard the play in years. I'm hopeful that maybe at some point that it will come to New York." Continued...