PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Superior Donuts — How Sweet It Is
By Harry Haun
Tracy Letts, Michael McKean and the other makers of Superior Donuts on Broadway celebrate their opening night.
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.
A '60s radical who sat out Vietnam in Canada, Arthur with his graying ponytail is out of step with the times, as rundown as his shop — a former firebrand operating on a low and tentative flame. Then, in steps Franco Wicks (Jon Michael Hill), a hot-shot college drop-out with young ideas on how to bring the place up to speed, and, in no time at all, he has revitalized the joint — and the pooped proprietor, too.
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."
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.
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