"America Will Be…"

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.

Blog Day Afternoon

Last Wednesday afternoon, a group of theater bloggers gathered at the Red Eye Grill on 7th Avenue across from Carnegie Hall for the first ever press event specifically for bloggers, made possible through Broadway’s Best Shows. The blogosphere was out in full force to sit around and chat with the cast and creatives behind Superior Donuts, the latest Steppenwolf to Broadway transfer that started previews last evening at the Music Box Theatre. This marks the second consecutive Tracy Letts play to be performed in the venue, following the hit run of his Tony and Pulitzer winning August: Osage County which closed in June.

There were several tables set up on the upper floor of the restaurant. Irene Gandy, one hell of a good press agent as well as one of the great fashionistas of the NY theatre community, told us that the afternoon was to be a bit like speed dating. (I’ve seen Irene at various openings, closings and other events over the past couple of years and she is always decked out in the most fabulous hats you’ve ever seen). Anyway, we’d all gather around the round tables and every five minutes, the actors as well as Tracy Letts and director Tina Landau would get up and switch tables.
Much to the delight of SarahB and myself, we found the delightful Kate Buddeke seated to our right. Kate tore up the Shubert Theatre as the brassy Miss Mazeppa (with her revolution in dance) in the excellent 2003 revival of Gypsy with Bernadette Peters, helping to bring down the house with “You Gotta Get a Gimmick.” She is a native of Chicago and has spent the last five years doing a great deal of theatre in her hometown where she was one of the original members of the American Theatre Company. I have to say, having met her briefly at Angus a week earlier and getting to chat with her here, she is a real pleasure to know and it is our great pleasure that she is back on Broadway.
Sarah and I found ourselves with our pal Jimmy as well as a correspondent from the Polish American Journal, who asked incisive questions about the importance of ethnicity portrayed within the play. And though I’ve never speed-dated, I guess it’s the same organized chaos of going from table to table. Everyone was excited for the play, and to be on the verge of starting performances in NY. I didn’t ask too many questions, but the one I did asked, “How has the play evolved since Steppenwolf?” It turns out that Letts has gone back and made some revisions. I never saw it in Chicago, so I would be curious to compare the frozen version that opens in two weeks with the text the actors were using over a year ago.

With the exception of Buddeke and Michael McKean, the actors in the ensemble are making their Broadway debuts; the excitement was palpable as they discussed what it was like to be working on Broadway. Landau and Letts talked about the differences between theatre in NY and Chicago. There is a different lifestyle, more relaxed and with a greater sense of community that both Letts and Landau said is hard to find in NY. The cost to create theatre in Chicago is also less than in NY, and it really seems that all the elements combined have allowed so many prestigious theatre companies to flourish.Michael McKean was at our table chatting with us after doing a quick interview with NBC’s Jeffrey Lyons. All of a sudden a press rep escorts a dapper and unassuming gentleman to our table. Rather stunned, we are all introduced to Michael Feinstein, whose upcoming Broadway venture All About Me, was just announced the day before. He sits down at the table, and the four of us marvel in seeing the two stars meet for the first time. Turns out that McKean and his beautiful wife, Annette O’Toole, had performed at Feinstein’s in Chicago and McKean’s father once worked at Columbia Records for Goddard Lieberson (yes, boys and girls, the Goddard Lieberson!). Feinstein proved a charming raconteur with fun stories about the Gershwins and Lehman Engel. Hell, he even had an anecdote involving my name.

The event was over within an hour, as the actors were making their way to the invited dress rehearsals of either A Steady Rain, another Chicago import, or Bye Bye Birdie. I only wish we had more time with all of them; they were all so eloquent and passionate about their work I could have listened all night. But I did go home with what was quite possibly the best donut I’ve ever tasted in my life. No idea where they came from, but Mr. Richards should consider selling them at the Music Box. I know I’d love another one when I see the show.