While a lot of people may be laying down palm fronds for Tracy Letts return to Broadway, they should also be applauding the fine, fine ensemble work of Steppenwolf Theater.
In Chicago’s uptown, there is a donut shop whose owner, Arthur Przybyszewski, pronounced Shubershefski, (Michael McKean) inherited from his father. It’s been a family business for 60 years, and is now pretty much an albatross around Arthur’s neck. Arthur arrives at his donut shop one winter Tuesday morning to find the police and the man who owns the DVD shop next door discussing the break-in that happened in the donut shop the night before. In 30 seconds we see a lifetime of heaped up disappointment revealed in Arthur’s demeanor. Arthur looks like he was rode hard and put away wet a few hundred times. His response to the break-in? “I’ll make some coffee.” Except today is Tuesday and the coffee man makes his rounds on Monday, so no coffee, and no donuts either today…. You get the idea.
Some time later, after Arthur’s first joint of the day, and the first of many monologues that reveal the layers of his life burdens, Franco shows up to apply for the job of the “Help Wanted” variety. Franco’s enthusiasm and fast talk belie the thin ice that occupies a great space in his life, but it is enough to get him the job and make a dent in Arthur’s façade.
Life unfolds and, predictably, the two men become friends. What is not predicable is how they do it. Letts does not take us down the soggy sodden road of the stranger in town who changes town. Arthur has pulled back from life so completely that the merest suggestion of intimacy sends him over the edge. The only person who pulls no punches is Max (the very excellent Yasen Payenkov) but that is because he wants to buy Arthur’s store and expand his business. Franco pays this no mind, and plows through Arthur’s roadblocks like they were Tinker Toys. He is a verbal ballplayer and Arthur is an athlete who has spent a lot of time on the bench, but not so long that he won’t do a little one-on-one if provoked. It’s not a sweet unfolding – it’s more like a man getting his coat snagged in a revolving door over and over again. Eventually he will pay attention.
Arthur and Franco’s duet spills over and touches the lives of their little community – the cops (Kate Buddeke and James Vincent Meredith) the local Oracle Lady Boyle (Jane Alderman) and Max. When the thin ice that Franco was avoiding cracks, everyone responds to the matter at hand. Led by Michael McKean, who is brilliant, they become the inmates who take over the asylum.
Superior Donuts is directed by Tina Landau with the same clarity and sensitivity that she brought to August: Osage County. There are silences here so rich you could take a bite out of them. Landau knows how we live. We are creatures with as much life withheld as shared.
Part fairy tale, part kick in the head. I myself got a little farklempt in a couple of places. “Comedy with some juice to it” – that’s how Michael McKean described Superior Donuts at an ITBA reception. These are characters with uneasy lives, but all of us are in that boat at one time or another. And if we are lucky we break through the glop to a place where we can have a bit of respite – and get ready for the next dip in the pool. Along the way, it’s wise to seek out friends.
BEN BRANTLEY for NEW YORK TIMES says, "A warm bath of a play that will leave Broadway audiences with satisfied smiles"
JOE DZIEMIANOWICZ for NEW YORK DAILY NEWS says, "Likable new play."
ELISABETH VINCENTELLI for NEW YORK POST says, "The show is a timely reminder of the heady pleasure ace actors and ace storytelling can bring.
JOHN SIMON for BLOOMBERG says, "It’s a pleasing boulevard comedy."
ELYSA GARDNER for USA TODAY says, "Director Tina Landau ensures that the players serve both Letts' sharp wit and his unexpected tenderness."
LINDA WINER for NEWSDAY says, "A sentimental, safely old-fashioned, surprisingly creaky rescue-fantasy and urban soaper."
DAVID SHEWARD for BACK STAGE says, "Definitely a Superior play."
ROBERT FELDBERG for THE RECORD says, "[Tracy Letts] wrote Superior Donuts, in part, as a valentine to his adopted city of Chicago. It's certainly no gift to the theater."
MICHAEL KUCHWARA for ASSOCIATED PRESS says, "It's got heart and more than a few laughs, a recipe that makes for an evening of fine entertainment."
DAVID ROONEY for VARIETY says, "The writing is often formulaic and the conclusion contrived, but Superior Donuts is a soulful play, full of humor and humanity."