Seen on Broadway: Tracy Letts, author of the biting Bug and the searing award-winner August: Osage County, tries a little tenderness with Superior Donuts, a Steppenwolf Theatre Company import now at the Music Box. Bad things happen, but there’s a sweetness here that’s not restricted to the doughnuts (you can buy some at the concession area at intermission). Michael McKean gives a beautifully modulated performance as Arthur, a Vietnam draft dodger whose life, centered around the dilapidated shop of the title, is flash-frozen; he seems to have been wearing costumer Ana Kuzmanic’s faded, moth-eaten clothes for the 40 years he’s been hawking sinkers. Into this changeless environment comes Franco (Jon Michael Hill), a black teenager who won’t take no for an answer when Arthur refuses him a job. The fast-talking Franco (an acting gem by Hill) loosens things up with his rapid-fire insights, but also shakes loose bottled-up traumas and brings a criminal element into the picture, forcing the emotionally constipated Arthur to take a stand.

I never figured Letts to write a lightly amusing and touching show, but the best playwrights always leave us guessing. To be honest the play flirts with sitcom, with funny bickering cops, a funny old drunk, and a funny Russian entrepreneur who wants to buy the shop—but the laughs (and sentiment) are earned, and director Tina Landau’s disciplined approach means they don’t come on the cheap.

Complete verisimilitude is often the Chicago way, and so it is here. Superior Donuts is a superior James Schuette set, of the kind of place you walk past everyday but never go in; the designer has gone in, and nailed the functional but decrepit feel of it. Its homeliness, welcoming but somehow not at the same time, is underscored by Christopher Akerlind’s raw-boned lighting, which in tandem with Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen’s sound design grounds the play in a harsh Second City winter. Superior Donuts makes for superior entertainment.

Superior Donuts resembles a Neil Simon play, brought up to date. Alas, a revival of Simon’s 1983 hit Brighton Beach Memoirs closed at the Nederlander just a week after opening, and before its would-be companion in repertory, the sequel Broadway Bound, could play. Too bad: director David Cromer (Adding Machine) brought his Chicago touch to the piece, finding layers and textures that might really have paid off. And the cast, led by Laurie Metcalf as an indomitable mother, was excellent. Kudos, too, to the design team, hereby memorialized for bringing the Great Depression to vivid life amidst the great recession: John Lee Beatty (set), Jane Greenwood (costumes), Brian MacDevitt (lighting), and Josh Schmidt and Fitz Patton (sound). Gone but not forgotten.—Robert Cashill

Equipment Vendors

Superior Donuts

Scenery Construction: Hudson Scenic Studio, Inc.
Lighting Equipment: Hudson Sound & Light
Audio Equipment: Sound Associates

Brighton Beach Memoirs

Scenery Construction: Hudson Scenic Studio, Inc.
Lighting Equipment: Hudson Sound & Light
Audio Equipment: Sound Associates