PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Superior Donuts How Sweet It Is

By Harry Haun
02 Oct 2009

McKean, whom Jeffrey Richards hired for The Pajama Game and The Homecoming, credits the producer with laying the groundwork for his current assignment. "Tracy and I met at an early preview of August: Osage County," he recalled, "then, he came to see me in The Homecoming, and he told Jeffrey, 'This guy could play Arthur.' So, when the play was finished, my manager Harriet Sternberg said, 'Would you like to read the new Tracy Letts play?' I said, 'Yea-ah.' And I fell in love with the character. I couldn't stand it if someone else were playing that part. I wouldn't even be here. I'd be home crying.

"Arthur is a real human being flawed and eaten up with guilt but he's also one of those guys who has built a shell and found a way to continue living. It's that kind of barnacle effect. But I get to see inside Arthur, and I get to show what he's about."

The actor also knows where the character is coming from: "I was lucky enough to have a very high lottery number so I didn't get drafted, but I had some friends who did run away to Canada. It was an option. I was living in New York when the Chicago riots started, and the guy from upstairs came downstairs and said, 'We're getting in the car. We're going to Chicago.' But I passed. Still, I was an activist to a certain extent. After those years, I was very active in the antiwar movement. Then, I came out to Los Angeles and became a radio actor and did that. I didn't forget about it. I stayed very active. Actually, I became a satirist. We ended the war, don't forget that."

Hill, in an award-worthy turn certainly, a Theatre World Award for his Broadway bow worms his way in the audience's collective heart with high-energy likeability. It's such a subtle invasion you don't see it coming. The pulse-check comes when trouble befalls the character and the audience emits audible gasps and groans.

"Franco's the best," trilled his impersonator. "He's the guy everybody wants to hang out with. He's funny, He's smart, smarter than me. You don't get to play kids as sharp as he is much, so I think it's a real privilege. Tracy gave me gold on every line."

By the end of the play, Franco's batteries have run down, and he's almost mute. "It's a complete reversal from the beginning of the play," Hill pointed out. "I run in at the start. I'm a chatterbox. Arthur's isolated and doesn't want to talk much. And then we get to see the complete opposite at the end of the play. I think it's really moving."

The dark cloud passing over the play is a debt-collecting bookie (Robert Maffia), replete with henchman (Cliff Chamberlain) and Maffia plays it surprisingly upbeat. "I like that you've got to find some empathy," he said. "As a bad guy, obviously, it's easy to just play it bad but you've got to find some light in it. He's a guy who doesn't want to be in the situation he's in." Which is not to say he doesn't turn on a dime. "It's a thrill as an actor to be able to do that to have the opportunity with a character to be able to really put that sort of thing off."

Eventually, primally, his character comes to blows with Arthur, and they duke it out like old guys. "We are old guys," he stressed. "That's how old guys fight. Rick Sordelet, the great fight director here in New York, did the staging of that. The fact that fights don't always last that long a punch might be thrown, maybe two, then it gets ugly and ends before you know it. It usually goes down to the ground, or someone goes for the private parts and it's over. We compressed it. It feels shorter in real time, but I think in theatrical time it lasts longer for the audience."

Jane Alderman was joyed to be making her Broadway debut in Superior Donuts, and it bothered her not a whit that she was doing it as a bag-lady (albeit, with Polonius-like flair for surprising smarts). "She's the wisest and kindest person in the play," the actress cheerfully declared. "Oh, I just love her to pieces."

The obligatory, if not inevitable, cops in the donut shop have unexpected sides as well. The female member of the force, played by Kate Buddeke, has eyes for Arthur, a remedial romantic. "Tracy, in rewriting a lot of the play from Chicago to here, gave me a lot more to do," she said. "He put more depth into the character.

"The time we were doing it in Chicago, August was winning the Pulitzer and the Tonys so we didn't have the time to workshop it a lot. We workshopped it over this last summer to get it ready for here, and he has done some incredible rewrites."

Meredith is the other police officer, a latent "Star Trek" geek not above dressing up in that series' garb.

"It has been a neat journey from last summer to all of us getting back together in June to do our workshop and deal with our changes," he said, "seeing Tracy change it kinda as we went through the workshop, rehearsals and previews. A lot has been adjusted, but the essential story is the same. I think a lot of things that changed are changes for the best. It tightened up the scenes. It tightened up the monologues. The show is much more muscular now than it was before. Tonight is a great culmination of that. Now that the reviews are out and all this is over, the work can really get started . . ."

A splendid assortment of first-nighters was assembled, many of them from previous Jeffrey Richards productions: Alan Alda, Elizabeth Ashley, Eric Bogosian, Bobby Cannavale, Jeff Goldblum, Jonathan Groff, Louise Hirschfeld, Dana Ivey, Stephanie March, David Margulies, Liz McCann, Rex Reed, Liev Schreiber, Marian Seldes, Elaine Stritch, Joan Rivers, Richard Thomas, Tamara Tunie and Gregory Generet, B.D. Wong and Karen Ziemba.