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Lucy Komisar

"Superior Donuts"

Written by Tracy Letts, Directed by Tina Landau.
Music Box Theatre, 239 West 45th Street, New York City.
Opened October 1, 2009; closes January 3, 2010.
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar October 27, 2009.

There's a whiff of television in Tracy Letts dark comedy about a sixties radical coming to terms with his life and a society that continues to have an underclass. The story is intriguing if a bit formulaic. It's as if Letts said, "Well, we need a middle-aged white ex-hippie with a pony tail, a brash young black man, a couple of cops of mixed colors and genders and some bad guys to prevent the story from cloying too much." That said, there is some charm in what he came up with, even if it's not great drama. Tina Landau directs at an agile pace that highlights the laughs.

"SUPERIOR DONUTS" -- Michael McKean as Arthur. Photo by Robert J. Saferstein.

Arthur Przybyszewski (Michael McKean) runs a shabby donut shop in a black section of Chicago. In the sixties, he was an activist and in 1968 was beaten by Daley's police. That would be at the Democratic Convention when protestors marched down the lakefront Michigan Avenue and shouted "The whole world is watching." (I was there, too.) He went to Toronto to escape the draft.

His father, a Polish immigrant, died while Arthur was in Canada, and he returned home to run the shop. His life hasn't turned out very well. His wife left him, and he hasn't seen his daughter in years. He is a loner who lives in the past and doesn't connect with anyone. McKean does a persuasive turn as the laid-back Arthur who still wears the T-shirts of the bands of his era.

Business in the donut shop is bad, and to add to it, when Arthur opens up that morning, the door is smashed and "pussy" is scrawled on the mirror. He hardly seems to care.

Jon Michael Hill as Franco and Michael McKean as Arthur. Photo by Robert J.Saferstein.

Later that day, in walks Franco Wicks (Jon Michael Hill), a young black man who needs a job. Hill is lively and engaging in the role. He persuades Arthur to hire him as an all-around helper and also sets about offering some good advice. Arthur is missing the evening trade, he needs to fix the place up. It's seedy, with a Formica counter and metal stools with red plastic seats. He needs music, and "How's about poetry reading. I'll produce a coffee house." Arthur acknowledges the competition of a new Starbucks, and Franco quips, "They've got Starbucks in wheat fields."

Franco also tells him to improve his appearance: "Let me tell you who looks good in a ponytail, girls and ponies." And he suggests he pay more attention to the lady cop (Kate Buddeke), who finds all kinds of reasons to stop by the shop.

Robert Maffia as Luther Flynn, Cliff Chamberlain as Kevin Magee, the debt collectors, Photo by Robert J. Saferstien.

The young man seems to be down on his luck now, but he has hopes for the future. He is writing the Great American Novel called "America Will Be," after Langston Hughes's poem. He wants Arthur to read it. Letts needs to give Arthur someone to care about, and that could be Franco.

Till now it's pretty light stuff and could be any family TV story. It gets darker when a couple of mobsters (Robert Maffia and Cliff Chamberlain) come around to collect on a debt. Seems Franco had been a runner for gamblers and had fallen into the vice himself. Meanwhile, Max Tarasov (Yasen Peyankov), a Russian who owns the DVD shop next door, wants to buy Arthur out. Eventually, all the pieces fit together. I could have done without the gratuitous brutality and a rather corny dénouement.

But the plot does grab your attention, as any good TV drama might, and there is some clever, funny dialogue and good acting by all, especially McKean as Arthur, Hill as Franco, Buddeke as a cop, Peyankov as the Russian store owner and Michael Garvey as his nephew, Kiril.


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