Friday, October 02, 2009

Superior Donuts

Photo: Michael Brosilow

I knew better than to expect that Tracy Letts's new play Superior Donuts would be as good as his Pulitzer Prize-winning August: Osage County, but I did dare to expect that it would be good at all. Instead, Superior Donuts is a badly-stitched-together series of cliches. In brief: a woebegone, isolated man in late middle age (Michael McKean, in a performance that doesn't read at all from the mezzanine) hires a young black man to work in his donut shop, and the young man gets him re-involved in life. This scenario could have worked, I suppose, if the young man didn't have way too much wisdom, confidence, knowledge, and achievement for a 20-year-old with serious problems. And if he didn't have a frame of reference suspiciously resembling that of a middle-aged white playwright. And if the older man were an interesting character. And if the people frequenting the donut shop--two cops, an alcoholic old woman, and the Russian shop owner from next door--didn't practically wear signs saying, "Aren't we quirky?" And if it weren't predictable from her first entrance that the alcoholic old woman would eventually say something brilliant and life-changing to the shop owner. And if the second act didn't feature one of the worst fight scenes in the history of bad theatrical fight scenes (a competitive category!) And if the whole thing didn't feel cobbled together. On the positive side: Jon Michael Hall, as the young man, acts with energy and charm; the set is very nice; and I guess parts were funny, since the audience laughed and laughed, though I was never quite sure why. There's no doubt that Tracy Letts is a first-class playwright, but everyone has a bad day at work. This is his.

(Note: I saw this at an early preview. However, since it came from a long run in Chicago, there was already plenty of opportunity for the creative team to iron out any problems.)

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