It is simply delicious to see a new play and fabulous actors. It is particularly fulfilling if the production in question is an ensemble piece. That is indeed the case with Superior Donuts at the Music Box Theatre. This new Tracy Letts (Pulitzer: August Osage County) comes directly from Steppenwolf and feels it. The tight ensemble has packed up their focused and small production and plopped it onto Broadway. The stage is even scaled down, with the help of blackout curtains to recreate the smallness. The set is a donut shop in Chicago, seemingly untouched since Arthur’s (Michael McKean) parents purchased it fifty years ago. The play opens with a suspicious break-in and the introduction of several of the 9 characters. Shortly after the police leave (fabulously played by James Vincent Meredith and Kate Buddecke) we are introduced to Franco (Jon Michael Hill) who comes to work and change Arthur’s life. Arthur is a frozen man, as the sound designer reminds us with accents of howling Chicago winds, and Franco thaws him. We learn of Arthur’s story through spotlight monologues. There are no surprises in this play, despite the audible gasps from the audience. But Letts’ skill may very well be in the predictability of his story telling and how very satisfying it is to see the characters develop exactly as one would expect. There are some very funny moments in this play that features ethnicity as its focal point. Mr. Letts has great fun with his Russian stereotypes, his digs at the Polish and Irish, and goes to lengths to highlight the rich history of African American poets. This conceit feels a little awkward, but perhaps it works well in Chicago. (Personal aside, I’m never quite sure which ethnic groups are amusing to make fun of and which are not.) There is a wonderful actress, Jane Aldermann who plays the alcoholic as Yoda character, Lady. While I found this character no more convincing than I ever do, Aldermann did, and it showed. Much of the set design and direction did much to set the tone and move the story forwarded. While it is always very difficult to stage a convincing fight scene, I must say that the actors were not helped by the harsh lighting. I’m not sure that it can be helped in a donut shop with fluorescent lights. Loving the performances as much as I did, I tried not to look too closely at the fake punches and foot stomping as sound effect.
Mr. Letts sat in front of me, as did several Broadway veterans. Mr. Letts was no doubt pleased with the abundance of laughter and audible response throughout the two acts. While the actors received a standing ovation (who doesn’t these days?) the curtain call was extremely brief, leaving the audience at somewhat of a loss. If you love very fine acting, and do not abhor sentimentality, I recommend this play. If you enjoyed August, not because of its scale but because of its content, you will enjoy Superior Donuts.