Monday, October 5, 2009

Superior Donuts


By Tracy Letts. Directed by Tina Landau. The Music Box Theatre. (CLOSED)

Tracy Letts' follow-up to his breakthrough Broadway splash August: Osage County gets a warm, encircling embrace from most of critics, leaving a donut-hole-sized gap for doubters in the middle. Even many who admire the work acknowledge its '70s-sitcom feel, with the relationship between an aging white urban shop owner and his feisty young employee of color eliciting several comparisons to Chico and the Man; most critics are willing to overlook some of the work's contrivances for the narrative satisfactions it offers. Nearly all are taken with the lead performances of Michael McKean and Jon Michael Hill, with Tina Landau's direction, and with James Schuette's believably greasy set. Newsday's Linda Winer, though not among the show's big fans, has a memorable description of the weather that marks her as a true Windy City survivor.

New York Post A
(Elisabeth Vincentelli) A chamber piece compared to "August" and its operatic scale. But smaller is by no means lesser...There's a thin line between sentiment and sentimentality, but Letts always stays on the right side. He also gets a deluxe production from director Tina Landau (whose work keeps getting better and better) and a cast in a state of grace...If all this makes "Superior Donuts" old-fashioned, so be it. The show is a timely reminder of the heady pleasure ace actors and ace storytelling can bring.

(David Cote) This witty, melancholy but hopeful chamber drama is a full-course meal served up by a crew of top chefs...As in his past plays, Tracy Letts's dialogue is smart, punchy, and unpredictable. He's fascinated by society's losers and loners. We're all isolated screw-ups, and we're all in it together, he seems to say. Director Tina Landau has at her disposal a terrific cast, direct from the world premiere at Chicago's Steppenwolf...It would be silly to ask if "Superior Donuts" is as good as Tracy Letts' mega-hit two seasons ago, "August: Osage County." They're totally different plays, united by an author whose muscular dialogue and skewed view of humanity makes him one of our most valuable playwrights.

Chicago Tribune A
(Chris Jones) Warm, affirmative and cheerfully easygoing...Still an unabashed homage to the people of Letts’ adopted hometown. But this is now a tighter, sharper and funnier affair...This piece has neither the formative ambition nor the acerbic core of “August: Osage County,” which preceded “Donuts” at the Music Box Theatre. (Letts is the rare American playwright who gets to follow his own play in the same Broadway theater). But “Superior Donuts” is fully at ease in its own fearlessly populist and cheerfully accessible dough, and further confirmation that Letts has figured out how to unlock something unusual in an audience....If you want to make accusations of shallow characters, or rip various other holes in this thing, you could find your way...The audience smells authenticity on the line. As Arthur likes to point out, these doughnuts were hand-fried in the back. On Broadway, you can taste the difference.

Backstage A
(David Sheward) A funny and moving evening of theater. Just as he rethought the dysfunctional-family play in "August: Osage County," here the playwright brings quirky twists to familiar themes and finds universal truths in them. This transfer from Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company, directed with no-nonsense toughness by Tina Landau, handily avoids sentiment and delivers a slice of life as fresh and tasty as a doughnut right out of the oven...Each of these people is as real, detailed, and flawed as James Schuette's lived-in set, with its grease stains, broken clock, and wall menu with missing letters.

Lighting & Sound America A
(David Barbour) Under Tina Landau's finely detailed and warmhearted direction, Superior Donuts is anchored by two superb performances. Michael McKean, a slump in his walk and exhaustion in his eyes, captures every bit of Arthur's resignation, especially in the monologues that reveal his lifetime of disillusionment...McKean's skillful underplaying is a perfect foil for Hill, an energy cell disguised as a human being...Many reviews of Superior Donuts, even the favorable ones, have made patronizing remarks about Letts' supposedly old-fashioned tendencies. (The word "sitcom" has been tossed about -- rather carelessly, in my opinion.) What others call old-fashioned, I see as craftsmanship; Letts takes the time to build a solidly constructed narrative filled with characters who engage your interest and sympathy. What starts as a tart, tangy comedy darkens bit by bit until it reaches a wrenching and funny climax. That's not a talent to be taken lightly. Letts also has an uncanny way of making his plays into telling parables of the American mood.

Talkin' Broadway A
(Matthew Murray) Is it blasphemous to state that Superior Donuts, Tracy Letts’s new play at the Music Box, is better than...August: Osage County?...In every way more significant than August in demonstrating theatre’s potential emotional and psychological pull...Landau provides plenty of the necessary glue with her deceptively adventurous staging, which suggests that inertia, like danger, can always exist where you least expect it. Fast-moving exchanges alternate with deadly silences to make the donut shop, which has been designed by James Schuette to softly shabby perfection, look like exactly the fading outpost it should be on the edge of a speeding-by world..Truth is what Superior Donuts is most deeply about.

CurtainUp A
(Elyse Sommer) I can't praise it enough. The script, the performances, the direction...all add up to two hours of exhilarating theater...An enjoyable, substantial addition to the work by a playwright who never fails to impress and surprise with his finely wrought characters and sharp dialogue...Tina Landau's staging works wonders to downplay the contrived elements enough to make this a believable and easy to identify with valentine to endangered neighborhoods and the family businesses that imbued them with personality...While McKean and Hill can be regarded as the leads, this is a spectacularly fine ensemble.

Wall Street Journal A-
(Terry Teachout) "You Can't Take It With You" rewritten by David Mamet, a dark comedy about a workplace "family" of charmingly wacky characters who suddenly find themselves caught in the deadly undertow of reality...A heartfelt piece of dead-serious entertainment that holds your attention all the way from the first punchline to the last blackout. Mr. Letts has the unfortunate habit of telling his audiences rather more than they need to know...This, however, is the play's only real flaw, and it is more than offset by the rich-textured acting of the ensemble cast...Tina Landau's direction is neat and right, but the staging of this production takes a back seat to James Schuette's set, a flawless replica of a grubby, grimy inner-city storefront. It's so realistic that you can almost smell the cinnamon buns.

Associated Press A-
(Michael Kuchwara) Appealing, sweet-tempered comedy-drama...If the play goes off-track a bit at the end as Letts tries to wrap up the story with a violent confrontation that seems forced and a little stagey, no matter. By then, we are hooked. Be warned, though. "Superior Donuts" is unashamedly sentimental, certainly a change of pace for the author of the combative "August: Osage County" and such offbeat works as "Killer Joe" and "Bug." But it's got heart and more than a few laughs, a recipe that makes for an evening of fine entertainment.

The Hollywood Reporter A-
(Frank Scheck) A wonderfully affecting and amusing work that reveals a playwright fully in command of his powers...At times, the play, with its single setting and profusion of colorful supporting characters, undeniably has the artificial feel of a vintage sitcom. The characterizations don't always ring true, and the situations sometimes feel less than organic. But there's so much heart in the piece, so much obvious affection for its characters and the milieu they inhabit, that one is easily able to overlook its contrivances. Letts has his characters gradually reveal themselves in dialogue that is alternately quietly moving and riotously funny, with even the most minor characters displaying surprising moments of depth...Director Tina Landau's staging is pitch-perfect.

Theatermania A-
(Dan Balcazo) A kinder, gentler work that is full of hope and the possibilities for human connection. Yet, Letts' gift for sharp dialogue and incisive characterization remains intact, thanks in large part to director Tina Landau and an excellent ensemble.

Theater News Online A-
(Bill Stevenson) It may be a more modest play, but it contains many of the ingredients that made August a critical and popular hit: compelling characters, a well-constructed plot, and a dexterous balance of humor and pathos. Balancing comedy and tragedy is no mean feat, but Letts does it as well as any living American playwright. Director Tina Landau and the superb eight-person make Superior Donuts as entertaining as it is moving...Superior Donuts isn’t a meaty three-course meal like August: Osage County, but it’s a treat nonetheless.

Variety B+
(David Rooney) A minor-key comedy-drama, laced through with tenderness and even a sweet vein of sentimentality. The writing is often formulaic and the conclusion contrived, but "Superior Donuts" is a soulful play, full of humor and humanity. Tina Landau's entertaining production for Steppenwolf offers much to savor in the ensemble's gently nuanced performances, particularly those of leads Michael McKean and Jon Michael Hill...The central relationship is drawn with deep affection, and Letts' dialogue is so crisp and flavorful it's no struggle just to relax into the story's mostly mellow mood and overlook its lapses into implausibility.

The Daily News B+
(Joe Dziemianowicz) Crosses the urban eatery setting of August Wilson's "Two Trains Running" with the snappy banter of the 1970s sitcom "Chico and the Man." What makes the play fresh is Letts. He creates vivid characters and always has surprises up his sleeve...Flashbacks revealing Arthur's history could have used a bit more finesse...[McKean] creates a richly nuanced portrait of a man who's given up - and who finally wakes up. Newcomer Hill is a true find. He lands one-liners with the cocky panache of Chris Rock and proves himself capable of breaking your heart.

The New York Times B+
(Charles Isherwood) Mr. Letts has mothballed his angst and tossed the deadly weapons in the back drawer. “Superior Donuts,” a gentle comedy that unfolds like an extended episode of a 1970s sitcom, is a warm bath of a play that will leave Broadway audiences with satisfied smiles rather than rattled nerves...“Superior Donuts” may be familiar and unchallenging, but it’s also comfortable — and no, there’s nothing wrong with that...If “Superior Donuts,” directed with an apt light touch by Tina Landau, possesses the nostalgic appeal of a classic sitcom, it is also hampered by some of the genre’s standard flaws...The honesty and subdued warmth of the rapport between Mr. McKean and Mr. Hill...helps freshen the material.

Bloomberg News B+
(John Simon) While not a prize-winning epic on the level of his “August: Osage County,” it’s a pleasing boulevard comedy nonetheless...The dialogues and monologues are well written...The performances are uniformly solid...Tina Landau has directed with her usual insight and aplomb, and Rick Sordelet has provided terrific fighting...These doughnuts or donuts, by any spelling, cast their jocund spell.

Los Angeles Times B+
(Charles McNulty) Bracingly funny...Brightly entertaining and even occasionally surprising...This Steppenwolf production — fluidly directed by Tina Landau and set in a dingy coffee and cruller joint that’s conjured with just the right greasy touches by scenic designer James Schuette — manages to have its zingers and its emotional reality too. Letts sets out to turn the audience into a live laugh track, and though some of his jokes are obvious and belabored, he largely succeeds in engendering a mood of generalized hilarity that, to his credit, never derides the hard-luck journeys of the characters...“Superior Donuts” hasn’t much poetry, but it has the satisfying tang of a theatrical fable.

Entertainment Weekly B
(Melissa Rose Barnardo) In a decrepit donut shop in multiethnic uptown Chicago, the aging hippie Polish proprietor (Spinal Tap vet Michael McKean) and his 21-year-old African-American employee (Jon Michael Hill) make dough — and friends. For romance, there's a redheaded cop (Kate Buddeke); for guffaws, there's a Russian (Yasen Peyankov) armed with vodka and one-liners (''Donut is like videotape, it is over''). Superior Donuts' sitcomesque story, by August: Osage County playwright Tracy Letts, won't linger, but you’ll likely leave craving a cruller.

On Off Broadway B
(Matt Windman) Feels like a television sitcom that you probably watched decades ago but remember fondly. It's not a breakthrough play by any stretch of the imagination, but that's no reason to knock it down. As directed by Tina Landau, "Superior Donuts" is a crowd-pleasing, heartwarming love letter to Chicago's Uptown neighborhood with a few unexpected streaks of gritty realism and melancholy...Bottom line: "Superior Donuts" is enjoyable, but maybe too sincere for its own good. Here's hoping Tracy Letts brings us something more substantial next year.

Newsday C+
(Linda Winer) A sentimental, safely old-fashioned, surprisingly creaky rescue-fantasy and urban soaper. The mild and predictable seven-character play has transferred intact from Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Tina Landau's sensitively detailed naturalistic production. It also has a breakout star-making Broadway debut by Jon Michael Hill.

Time Out NY C
(Adam Feldman) Has a built-in nostalgia for the sugar-coated, grease-infused confections of its title. And why not? The play is just such a snack itself, old-fashioned in its style and proudly humble...Essentially sitcom fare with a scare factor, like an especially sharp episode of Chico and the Man. On the Lear scale, the play owes more to Norman than King. The audience, it must be said, largely gobbles it up. And again, why not? Most of the play goes down easily enough...Something ineffable is missing from McKean’s central performance. In many scenes, this veteran comic actor seems merely capable and bland.

Village Voice C
(Michael Feingold) More hopeful souls may find comfort in the carbohydrate theatrics of Tracy Letts's Superior Donuts; it gave me only the harmless satisfactions of a slightly stale cruller...The kind of old-Broadway show Superior Donuts represents was already becoming obsolete in my youth; after this many decades' absence, it must look nearly new to the uninitiated...As in the old-style Broadway plays that Superior Donuts recalls, a largely appealing cast and brisk direction, by Tina Landau, sugar over the play's predictability.

New York C-
(Scott Brown) It should have been titled The Sad Lebowski Finds Forrester: an after-school special for graying white boomers, built on a reliable set of cues for audience approval, disapproval, and raucous release. It’s practically call-and-response. Race, class, immigration—Superior does it all, deploying flimsy sitcom ironies (including the occasional well-turned one-liner) against even the thorniest social conundrums. Again, the performances give ample cover: McKean does burnout futility about as well as can be done, and he finds ways to nuance Arthur’s old-stoner space-outs into lushly wordless monologues...What life the play has really resides in Hill, a Steppenwolf veteran who surges with honesty and electricity, even while trapped inside a character seemingly concocted in a white-liberal ecstasy in the early hours of November 5, 2008.

New Yorker D+
(Hilton Als) Watching the mentor-protégé dynamic play itself out is often a seductive affair—it satisfies our narcissistic interest in self-replication—but Letts’s depiction of the relationship is so laden with liberal concern that it becomes, ultimately, a turnoff...It’s a familiar story: a young prole of great, barely hidden sensitivity meets and thaws an emotionally frozen middle-aged white man.

Bergen Record D
(Robert Feldberg) The last time I'd thought of "Chico and the Man" was ... never, actually. But the 1970s TV series rushed into my brain as I watched "Superior Donuts," the sugary, formulaic comedy that opened Thursday night at the Music Box Theatre...The play's main problem isn't that its situation fails, shall we say, to be of the first freshness. It's that it's presented in the shallow, phony style of a sitcom, with unpersuasive characters who are designed as laugh-line machines...With all its unreality, the hardest thing to believe about "Superior Donuts" is that it was written by Letts, whose smart, tough, honest, edgy, hilarious "August: Osage County" was one of the best things to happen to Broadway in years. He's said that he wrote "Superior Donuts," in part, as a valentine to his adopted city of Chicago. It's certainly no gift to the theater.

New York Post A 13; NY1 A 13; Chicago Tribune A 13; Backstage A 13; LS&A A 13; Talkin' Broadway A 13; CurtainUp A 13; Wall Street Journal A- 12; Associated Press A- 12; The Hollywood Reporter A- 12; Theatermania A- 12; Theater News Online A- 12; Variety B+ 11; The Daily News B+ 11; The New York Times B+ 11; Bloomberg News B+ 11; Los Angeles Times B+ 11; Entertainment Weekly B 10; On Off Broadway B 10; Newsday C+ 8; Time Out NY C 7; VV C 7; New York C- 6; NYer D+ 5; Bergen Record D 4; TOTAL: 263/25=10.52 (B+)

1 comment:

RLewis said...

The acting was great, but where are the f-ing Donuts?! Hardly anything on the shelves throughout, and no one ever buys anything. Cops walk all over crime scene glass; and a big hole in the door in the middle of winter, and no one inside is cold. ? Oh, Tina. For something so naturalistic, I really had to hike up my suspenders.