Superior Donuts, Tracy Letts’ politico-comic follow-up to his Tony- and Pulitzer-winning August: Osage County, has been belittled in some critical quarters (the Times, Time Out New York) as a light, sitcom-esque work—at least, relative to August’s acerbity and the jolts of earlier thrillers like Bug. This play might lack the endless caustic quarrels that characterized Letts’ last, but his latest is far from insubstantial: in between the charming comic sparring between its two masterful leads, the play grapples with political issues more conspicuously than August, while exploring a similar theme: America’s (downward) historical trajectory. But whereas the previous play was steeped in cynicism through to the end, Donuts looks to the future, in true Obama-era fashion, with misted eyes full of hope.
Michael McKean, the Christopher Guest regular who was fine but unexceptional in last year’s revival of The Homecoming, gives a magnificent performance as Arthur, an aged, well-read, ponytailed hippie in tie-dye tees and torn denim—the sort of dazed glass-eye you might find smoking joints at the back of a RatDog concert—who unenthusiastically mans his immigrant parents’ old donut shop in the Uptown (read: poor and black) section of Chicago. McKean nails the role’s weariness, and charts the character’s Bogartian path from apathy to involvement without allowing Arthur to devolve into a sentimental grandpa-type. His proficient performance anchors the play, but it’s so unshowy that Jon Michael Hill’s easily overwhelms it; in his Broadway debut, the exciting young actor portrays the loquacious foil to McKean’s taciturn stoner.
Hill plays Franco, a young African-American putting college “on hold” so he can make some dough (by fryin’ dough!) and pay off a gambling debt; he has also written the Great American Novel—a jumbled bundle of marble notebooks and legal pads held together with rubber bands. Despite the (donut?!?) hole into which his character has dug himself, Franco maintains an indefatigable enthusiasm, and Hill puts his whole body into the performance: Franco tromps through the shop, kicks the air, leaps with excitement. He’s also funny as hell, working off of Letts’ text, which is stuffed with sharp one-liners. (“Let me tell you who looks good in a ponytail. Girls. And ponies.”)
Funny as Letts’ writing is, Superior Donuts has an unsmiling side, too, one that engages with the social history of Chicago (which maybe explains, in part, why New York critics have been underestimating it, though our city has had similar problems). The play originated at the Windy City’s Steppenwolf Theatre, and addresses Obama’s adopted hometown’s experiences with civic and social unrest—going back to the 1968 DNC protests, in which Arthur participated—as well as the racial tensions and changing faces of poor black neighborhoods, where drug dealers now peddle their wares in front of the corner Starbucks. (And, where white business owners continue to exploit a minority community by stuffing them to obesity with fried-dough meal replacements!)
But Letts’ concerns aren’t limited to the regional. His transforming city is a microcosm of a changing country, as the deteriorating family was in August; Arthur represents the resistance to that evolution. “No one wants donuts anymore, they eat yogurt and bananas,” Arthur’s business-neighbor (Yasen Peyankov), the Slavonic proprietor of a DVD store, tells him. “Donut is like videotape: it’s over…donut cannot change. Donut will always be donut.”
More specifically, Arthur represents an American element unable to act, paralyzed by fear. He is a Vietnam-era draft evader, who lived more than a decade in Toronto before President Carter invited him back; as the play opens, his store has been vandalized, “PUSSY” scrawled in sloppy, spray-painted block letters against the back wall. In expository soliloquies, Arthur reveals he was not only against the War but scared of it, and is still dealing with the pain born of his cowardice, a hurt that has manifested itself in cynicism and jadedness—easily contrasted by Franco’s wild-eyed optimism. The arc of the play is the transformation of a man who doesn’t even vote to a man who conquers his fear of doing, of being, whether it’s propositioning a love interest for a date or brawling with the bad guys.
After all, Letts names Franco’s novel “America Will Be” not because the audience is encouraged to fill in the blank (will be…awesome?), but because the playwright believes that this Grand Experiment will persevere, despite its frictions, setbacks and hang-ups. That America, simply, will always be America, always a mess, always trying to right itself. Or, as goes the Langston Hughes passage to which he alludes: “America never was America to me,/And yet I swear this oath–/America will be!” Working through such ideas hardly makes for insignificant drama, even if there are a lot of laughs along the way.
(photo credit: Robert J. Saferstein)