Thursday, January 12, 2012

Superior cast, not-so superior Donuts

Will LeBow and Omar Robinson plot their next move against Starbucks.  Photo by Mark S. Howard.

The Lyric Stage definitely has a superior cast to serve up Superior Donuts; they just don't have a superior play (I know, I'm sorry - you've heard, or are going to hear, a variation on that line in just about every review of this show you read).  BUT, Tracy Letts's follow-up to his expansively caustic August: Osage County is, I admit, a bit like a donut itself (and I think the author knows it): it's sugar-coated, warm and kinda sticky, and you're happy to gobble it up even though you know it has no nutritional value.

Indeed, the sticky-sweet Donuts sticks out of Letts's oeuvre like - well, like a Dunkin' honey-dipped on a bed of sour grapes; for this author's past work has reliably charted the dark side of American life - from the paranoia of Bug to the internecine generational warfare of Osage County.  Donuts, however, taps into the self-forgiving mood of the "social conscience" sitcoms of the 70s - and then crosses it with a big fat kiss laid on the working-class melting pot of Chicago.  Which all works pretty well, for the most part, until you begin to sense that Letts himself is uncomfortable with the Good Times vibe he has crafted (in fact he seems more troubled by it than we are).  So he interlards his punchlines with sudden appearances by gangsters and goons, and a subplot about bookies that you never quite believe, and a few awkward swipes at big themes (racial tension, the Vietnam War).  Thus Superior Donuts slowly morphs into Pulp Fiction Meets Chico and the Man, with a Special Guest Appearance by Langston Hughes; in attempting a play with issues, Letts ends up with a play with issues.  But hey, he gives pretty good Tarantino, and definitely could handle an episode of Chico, so scene by scene, the playwright keeps you fairly happy - as long as you don't think about the whole play all at once, you're good.

I realize that wasn't exactly high praise.  But then I'm guessing, or hoping, that this has just been an experiment for Letts - or maybe (as I suspect) it's an older, less-polished play that he dusted off once Osage made him so marketable.  Either way, the dialogue is generally tight, and there's a poignant undercurrent of feeling to some of the action - and that's all good actors need, really, to keep the theatrical ball rolling.  And luckily the Lyric has rounded up a surprisingly strong cast - maybe their best large ensemble since Nicholas Nickleby, in fact (even the bit parts pop nicely).

At the center of Donuts is Will LeBow's Arthur Przybyszewski (this is Chicago, remember), proprietor of, yes, "Superior Donuts," and a gentle, pony-tailed boomer lost in creeping despair and self-blame - so lost he can't even manage to connect with a nice lady cop who has her eye on him (Karen MacDonald).  Arthur is given a shove in her direction, however, by Inspiring Young Person Franco Wicks (Omar Robinson), a "self-starter" who thinks he can revive Arthur's fading business and maybe even fight back against Starbucks with natural ingredients and poetry readings.  When he's not being inspiring, btw, Franco is busy writing the Great American Novel (which, come to think of it, is also pretty inspiring), but he's also got a gambling debt trailing him, and two nasty thugs along with it.

As I said, there aren't too many surprises in this plot, although there are some head-scratchers - including a sudden fist-fight that seems to emerge from nowhere.  Or rather it emerges from Arthur's back-story, which Letts mostly divulges in awkward monologues (with Arthur literally haloed in a spotlight).  The brilliant LeBow delivers an exquisitely subtle performance, but he hasn't figured out how to make this dynamic work, and I'm afraid director Spiro Veloudos hasn't been much help.  Still, moment to moment, LeBow charms.  And luckily he is playing against the radiant Omar Robinson, who caught my eye in Twelfth Night a month or two ago, and here easily steals scenes from some of the sharpest pros in town.  Again, I wouldn't say he actually limns the neediness - or maybe instability - that must be moving inside his character (otherwise how has Franco's crushing debt materialized?), but his easy star power makes it easy to forget that.

But then again, almost every performance in this show is a fine turn unto itself; the supporting cast - Steven Barkhimer, De'Lon Grant, Beth Gotha, Christopher James Webb, Zachary Eisenstat and Steven James DeMarco, all bring welcome detail, believable accents, and an admirable level of craft to their roles (which sometimes only amount to a line or two).  It seemed to me that only Karen MacDonald, surprisingly enough, didn't quite find her feet; she's appealing but a little forced, as if she didn't trust that we were getting it.  Or perhaps she's simply itching to make the part more than it really is.  Elsewhere, however, everything was appropriately scaled; the nicely detailed set was by Matthew Whiton, and the accurate costumes by Mallory Frers.  With all this talent on the stage, you often wished that Tracy Letts had fried up something more substantial, something that could stick to your ribs; but even if Superior Donuts (like its namesake) is mostly sugar and hot air, I admit it's pretty sweet going down.

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