Jon Michael Hill and Michael McKean in Superior Donuts
(© Robert J. Saferstein)
Jon Michael Hill and Michael McKean in Superior Donuts
(© Robert J. Saferstein)
Those who know playwright Tracy Letts' prior work, including his acerbic Pulitzer Prize-winning dysfunctional family drama August: Osage County, his paranoia-filled Bug, or his deeply disturbing Killer Joe may be surprised by his latest offering, Superior Donuts, now at Broadway's Music Box Theatre. This engaging play is a kinder, gentler work that is full of hope and the possibilities for human connection. Yet, Letts' gift for sharp dialogue and incisive characterization remains intact., thanks in large part to director Tina Landau and an excellent ensemble -- all of whom are repeating their roles from the original Chicago premiere by Steppenwolf Theatre Company last year.

To be sure, as with Letts' other work, there is plenty of conflict and even violence within the play. It opens with police officers Randy (Kate Buddeke) and James (James Vincent Meredith) investigating a break-in at the donut shop owned and operated by Arthur Przybyszewski (Michael McKean), features an off-stage beating that lands one character in the hospital, and includes an onstage fistfight (which is admittedly badly choreographed by Rick Sordelet -- or at least badly executed -- and is one of the few missteps within the production).

But the main focus of the play is the friendship that develops between Arthur, an aging hippie who dodged the draft during the Vietnam War, and his new 21-year-old African-American employee Franco Wicks (Jon Michael Hill), an aspiring novelist who also happens to have a massive gambling debt that he's trying to pay off. Their scenes together are the play's finest, and McKean and Hill have an easy rapport that gives a lift to Letts' already crackling lines.

Arthur is the more laid-back of the two, and McKean's understated portrayal is both humorous and richly layered. The play includes several monologues in which Arthur details his life history, including his tempestuous relationship with his father, his flight to Canada in the 1960s, and his failed marriage. These allow McKean to reveal the depths of Arthur's sense of failure and loss, and help to explain why he comes across to others as withdrawn. Hill brings a vibrancy to his role that is pleasurable to watch. He walks with a bounce in his step and it's easy to see how his presence serves as a positive influence on Arthur, allowing the older man to come out of his shell. Yet, Franco's outward bravado belies an inward uncertainty, which Hill also occasionally lets the audience glimpse.

Among the supporting players, Jane Alderman is hilarious as Lady, a recovering alcoholic who isn't doing too well at staying away from drinking. Buddeke brings an awkward charm to Randy, whose obvious crush on Arthur leads to another of the play's best scenes. Meredith is equally effective in his role of a beat cop who actually cares about the people he meets out on patrol. Yasen Peyankov is appropriately annoying as Max, a neighboring shopkeeper who wants to buy Arthur's store. Even as his racist remarks and obnoxious behavior make you dislike him, Peyankov gives a rounded characterization that also makes his friendship with Arthur believable. Michael Garvey hardly has any lines as Max's nephew Kiril, but nevertheless makes a strong impression. Robert Maffia and Cliff Chamberlain have the least to work with in their roles as Luther and Kevin, who come to collect Franco's gambling debt, but they do their best to give their characters dimension.