What can I say? I love a good opening night. The stars are out, the excitement is high and you are usually privvy to a rather impressive night of theatre. As luck would have it, I took in my seventh Broadway opening with the official arrival of Tracy Letts’ engaging new play Superior Donuts at the Music Box Theatre.
I met up with Steve on Broadway and his partner Doug at Angus, where we enjoyed a pre-show champagne toast and were soon joined by Gil Varod of Broadway Abridged. As we made our way to the theatre, we encountered Tony-winner Elizabeth Ashley in the outside hallway of the restaurant, where she was casually seated. Perhaps it was the champagne or the opening night aura or both, but I decided I just had to talk to Ms. Ashley, having enjoyed her work last season in both Dividing the Estate and August: Osage County. She is everything you would hope for in a stage legend: warm, congenial and quite the character. We excused ourselves when her friend and former co-star Penny Fuller arrived (another surreality) and found ourselves at the opening night red carpet.
We made our way into the theatre, where we perched ourselves next to the concession stand which was ideal for people watching – and very similar to the way SarahB, Kari and I experienced the opening night arrivals for August: Osage County a couple years ago. I spotted Alan Alda, Joan Rivers, Stephanie March, B.D. Wong, Tamara Tunie, Adam Guettel, Richard Thomas, Jonathan Groff, Elaine Stritch, Amy Morton, Molly Regan, Jeff Perry, Brian Kerwin, Lois Smith, John Cullum, Jim True-Frost, Dana Ivey, Jeff Goldblum, Bobby Cannavale, Karen Ziemba, Rex Reed, Liev Schreiber and perennial opening night favorite Marian Seldes, with whom I had the privilege of speaking after the performance.
Letts has done it again. Only three months following the close of Pulitzer and Tony winning juggernaut, August: Osage County, the playwright is back on Broadway with another thought-provoking, incisive and wholly different new play.
It must be difficult to follow-up a success like August, given the overwhelming critical and audience response, but Letts has done what only the best of writers can do: he’s come up with something new and entirely different. Superior Donuts opened at Steppenwolf in Chicago last summer to positive reviews, starring Michael McKean as an out of touch, emotionally stunted former hippie going through the motions as he runs his parents’ donut shop in uptown Chicago. The show met with positive reviews and big box office as a result of the buzz surrounding Letts, and now the play has opened at the Music Box Theatre with its entire original company intact.
McKean is perfectly understated as Arthur, the son of Polish immigrants who has inherited the donut shop which has been in his family since around the time of his birth. While Arthur has great difficulties communicating with the rest of his world, he opens up to the audience in painfully revealing monologues that provide important insight to the character and the drive behind his motivations. A draft-evader and former hippie whose time has seemingly past, Arthur is sleepwalking through life until he needs to hire a new assistant, which ends up changing his life considerably.
Jon Michael Hill, in the most auspicious Broadway debut we’re likely to see this season, is that new assistant, a young black man desperately in need of a job (see the play to find out why). His character, Franco Wilks comes into the shop with bold ideas, intelligence and his great American novel consisting of a dozen or so notebooks unceremoniously tied together. The dynamic and energetic Hill imbues Franco with an ebullient idealism which starts to stir Arthur from his antisocial stupor. At the heart of the play is the conflict between Arthur’s jaded cynicism and Franco’s seemingly unending optimism. Arthur unwittingly becomes the closest thing to a father figure in Franco’s life, and Franco is standing in for Arthur’s estranged daughter. They should engrave Mr. Hill’s name on the Theatre World Award now to save time. Prepare to hear his name mentioned a lot this spring during awards season.
Kate Buddeke is perfection as the awkwardly self-conscious Chicago cop with more than a fleeting interest in Arthur. James Vincent Meredith provides ample humor as her uber-serious partner, also a Star Trek enthusiast. Cliff Chamberlain and Robert Maffia are unsettlingly menacing as two low-end hoods who have their eye out for Franco. Jane Alderman is touching as Lady, the alcoholic and seemingly homeless woman who offers unexpected pearls of wisdom. Yasen Peyankov is the brash Russian immigrant who’s invested himself 100% in the American dream, who when he gets what he wants proves that one person’s achievement of the dream usually comes at a loss for someone else. Michael Garvey is his nephew. Looking like he stood in for Dolph Lundgren in Rocky IV, he’s quite possibly the purest character in the play, offering one of the most heartfelt moments onstage.
Director Tina Landau, who took on the project when Amy Morton decided to stay with the Broadway company of August: Osage County, has done concise work here in establishing the characters and the donut shop as the centerpiece of their world. Christopher Akerlind’s lighting design is beautifully understated, while set designer James Schuette creates an atmosphere so realistic, you can almost smell the donuts being made offstage, and feel the chill of the Chicago winter.
In reading the reviews and commentaries about the new play, I find it inevitable that the discussion would include comparisons and contrasts to August: Osage County. While there are obvious parallels, they are innately two entirely different kinds of theatre. August is the sort of grand, epic theatre that recalls American drama of the mid 1950s leaving you numb with catharsis. Superior Donuts is a lighter comedy, with a much more uplifting outlook on life. The American experiment mourned in the former isn’t entirely dead in the latter, even after considerable personal setbacks. I can understand comparing Superior Donuts to a socially aware 70s sitcom, but it seems like a gauche generalization of what is actually happening onstage. The play is what every substantial comedy should be – a drama that happens to be very, very funny. Mr. Letts’ latest work only proves that he fast becoming the most important contemporary American playwright.