Tracy Letts' Superior Donuts is a modest, solidly entertaining lesser work—lesser, inevitably, than Letts' Pulitzer Prize-winning August: Osage County. Donuts might not be superior, but director Tina Landau succeeds in telling an involving story with both Chicago-centric and universal appeal.
Playwright: Tracy Letts . At: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted. Runs Through: Aug. 17 . Phone: 312-335-1650. Photo by Michael Brosilow
The piece is anchored by two very different actors. Jon Michael Hill joined Steppenwolf's ensemble only last year, when he was still an undergraduate at U of I. Consider his career as one started in the way fast lane. He's paired onstage with Michael McKean, a prolific actor with close to 40 years in the business and the comic who created one of TV's more iconic characters, Lenny of 'Laverne and Shirley.'
Hill is both exasperating and charming as Franco Wicks, a young man whose brash, outspoken intelligence and loquacious charm are matched in intensity by the crippling ( both literally and figuratively ) millstone he acquired as a kid and that now threatens to crush him. McKean is just as compelling as Arthur Pryzbyszewski, an aging hippie who half-heartedly runs the titular donut shop when he's not getting high or sleeping in. Both men are more than they appear on the surface. Arthur is no slacker, but someone who has been gradually, sadly worn down by decades of ideal-draining passivity that followed a beating by Chicago cops during a 1960s protest in Uptown ( 'The riot you didn't see on TV,' Arthur notes with an almost imperceptibly bitter edge. ) He's a gentle soul with a huge heart, somebody you root for even as he continually displays a stubborn unwillingness to actively direct the course of his own life. McKean captures all of this, as well as the subtle taint of self-loathing that prevents Arthur from truly engaging with the world around him.
Arthur is jolted into taking a deep, long look at the cost of his inertia after Franco talks his way into a job at the donut shop. Listen carefully, and it's clear that something is terribly amiss with the supremely self-confident Franco. He was a student at Loyola, but dropped out to go to Truman College, and then dropped out of Truman to work for minimum wage making donuts. Something's wrong with this picture. Just what that is becomes frighteningly clear soon enough, and it forces Arthur to decide once and for all whether he'll shake off a years of apathy.
There's stock, serviceable work by Yasen Peyankov as a porn dealer/electronics store owner and by Kate Buddeke as a weary but optimistic beat cop. And as an officer with a hobby that's an absolute hoot, James Vincent Meredith is a standout. As for Loy Arcenas's set, it's so realistic you can practically smell the burnt coffee and feel the sticky linoleum under your feet. x