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Steppenwolf Theatre Company's "Superior Donuts" at The Music Box

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Jeffrey Richard, Jean Doumanian,
Jerry Frankel et al.

The Steppenwolf Theatre Company Production of
Superior Donuts
(Superior Donuts Website)

By Tracy Letts

With: Jane Alderman, Kate Buddeke,
Cliff Chamberlain, Michael Garvey
Jon Michael Hill, Robert Maffia
Michael McKean, James Vincent Meredith
Yasen Peyankov

Directed by Tina Landau

The Music Box
239 West 45th Street
A Shubert Organization Theatre

Scenic Design: James Schuette
Costume Design: Ana Kuzmanic
Lighting Design: Christopher Akerlind
Sound Design: Rob Milburn & Michael Bodeen
Wig & Hair Design: Charles LaPointe
Dramaturg: Edward Sobel
Original Casting: Erica Daniels
New York Casting: Telsey + Company
Fight Director: Rick Sordelet
Production Stage Manager: Arthur Gaffin
Technical Supervision: Hudson Theatrical Associates
Press Representatives: Irene Gandy/ Jeffrey Richards Assoc.
General Management: Richards/Climan, Inc.

Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
October 28, 2009

In contrast to Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s most recent Tracy Letts play on Broadway, August Osage County, Superior Donuts does not include violent mayhem between the main characters, but rather voluminous warmth and palpable bonding. Where the earlier play made strangers of relatives, the current play makes best friends of strangers. The scene is uptown Chicago, a vandalized donut shop, called Superior Donuts. Someone has written an epithet in graffiti across the inside wall.

Arthur Przybyszewski (Michael McKean), the shop’s Polish-American, middle-aged, owner, with a gray ponytail and 60’s rock t-shirts, seems detached, devoid of relationships, passively robotic in his demeanor. He doesn’t seem upset or shocked, but rather resigned and resilient to hassles; another day, another dollar. Officer Randy Osteen (Kate Buddeke) and her partner, Officer James Bailey (James Vincent Meredith), show up to assess the damage and file a report. It’s obvious that these police partners don’t get along, and the sense of alienation and isolation builds. An elderly Lady Boyle (Jane Alderman) sits down at the counter for her usual coffee and donut, with bland banter that gives her day meaning. Max Tarasov (Yasen Peyankov) owns the DVD shop next door and begs Arthur to sell him the space, so he can modernize and expand. The neighborhood is tough, and he needs an old-fashioned American break.

Then, in walks Franco Wicks (John Michael Hill), a young black student with contemporary ideas to jump-start Arthur’s donut business. He needs a job, but we don’t yet know how much he really needs the cash. He’s easy going, connecting, humorous, and full of life and hope. He’s the future, and he’s a spark of energy in this drab, lifeless space. Franco learns how to fry donuts, cleans the shop, decorates, removes the graffiti, and plans poetry nights. Yet, Arthur’s a slow sell, and so is Franco, when it comes to willing, human connections, with race, age, life experience, and attitude so contrasting and out of sync.

The first watershed moment arrived, when Arthur recited, in rapid succession, a list of renowned black poets, winning a friendly bet. The next watershed moment occurred when Arthur picked a physical fight with thugs, who were collecting Franco’s gambling debts. The audience was riveted to Arthur’s courageous scene, assisted by Max’ Russian relative, who towered over all of them (Michael Garvey as a very tough-looking Kiril Ivakin). Another watershed moment brought Arthur a second meaningful relationship, as he lowered his defenses, thanks to Franco’s prodding, and started dating Randy, the cop. Mr. McKean’s posture, gestures, facial expressions, and voice all shifted considerably, as he took on the role of boyfriend, no longer the loner. Ms. Buddeke, as well, took on a feminine air, a sparkle in her eye. Tina Landau clearly directed for nuanced body language, adjustable tones, and meaningful eye contact.

When Franco returns to the shop, after his fateful night with his creditor thugs, Arthur’s photographic memory enables Franco to restore his life’s dream. This scene was the final watershed moment. Mr. Hill is an artist to watch, one who will surely grace Broadway in near future productions. He’s naturally engaging, appealing, and dynamic. Together, Mr. McKean and Mr. Hill were quite a duo. The entire ensemble connected seamlessly, exuding credibility as bonding built. James Schuette’s scenic design could not have been more lifelike, with bleak street scenes, hints of Christmas, and falling Chicago snow, peering through the window. Christopher Akerlind’s lighting was requisite to the show’s drawing us in, as the hours passed by in this microcosm of urban humanity. Rick Sordelet should be mentioned, as the fight scene ended with the actors intact. Kudos to Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Tracy Letts, Tina Landau, and the New York cast for this memorable matinee.

Jon Michael Hill and Michael McKean
in "Superior Donuts"
Courtesy of Robert J. Saferstein

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For more information, contact Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower at