A playwriting chameleon, Tracy Letts radically shifts his style and tone from play to play. His Man from Nebraska, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, was an introspective, small-cast work quite different from his earlier violent dramas, Killer Joe and Bug. Then, last year came August: Osage County — the winner of the 2008 Tony Award for Best Play and the 2008 Pulitzer — an epic, three-act family saga set in rural Oklahoma, with echoes of Eugene O’Neill and Anton Chekhov. Now, there’s Letts’ highly entertaining if not terribly original Superior Donuts, getting its world premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre, in which the playwright’s style borrows freely from TV conventions of drama and comedy.
At 58, Art Przybyszewski (Michael McKean) is a second generation Polish-American who runs the Chicago donut shop he inherited from his immigrant parents; he’s also a divorced, pony-tailed, pot-smoking, aging hippie who leads a quiet life of emotional isolation and physical distance even from his neighbors and regular customers. All that changes, however, when he hires a young African-American shop assistant, Franco (Jon Michael Hill) — and eventually takes on some of the young man’s burdens.
Much of the work veers wildly between high drama and verbal comedy, before Letts strongly tips the scales towards drama, wrapping up the play with a climactic brawl and a nearly-wordless emotional ending that has even strong men wiping their eyes. He also interrupts the play’s standard realism to have Art deliver several brief biographical monologues directly to the audience.
Moreover, since Letts is a witty writer, it’s hard to resist lines such as, “The root of the Polish character is hopelessness, and a wake is the proof,” or Franco’s reply when Art calls him an optimist: “I wouldn’t say that. I’m intrepid.” In addition, Chekhov cognoscenti will relish the final scene homage to The Cherry Orchard, delivered by the Russian businessman, while the neighborhood bag lady (Jane Alderman), acting as a kind of a Greek chorus, baldly states the work’s theme: “The heart wants one thing, the brain wants something else.”
Under the direction of Tina Landau, the two lead performers are extraordinarily appealing. McKean is consistently understated, observant and magical; a throw-away actor who’s almost always quiet and placid but never lacking in energy; while Hill displays a megawatt smile in a showy part but also plays the subtext of Franco’s vulnerability and tenderness. Indeed, the emotional rock of the work is the repressed tenderness in both Art and Franco that binds them so quickly. (The play’s time arc is a few days, probably too brief for verisimilitude if one really delves.) Loy Arcenas’ slice-of-life donut-shop set features a full ceiling piece, skillfully lit by Christopher Akerlind, while Ana Kuzmanic’s costumes — a ying/yang tee-shirt here, a plaid sports coat there — make statements both funny and subtle.
The play may not be Letts’ most superior work, but it’s likely to be an audience pleaser.