Thursday, December 24, 2009
New York, Winter 2009 - Day Seven, "Superior Donuts" & "Finnian's Rainbow"
Poor Arthur Przybyzewski. Past his mid-life crisis, he's spent his years mostly running away from things -- the draft, his wife, their child. Now, living an isolated, lonely life running the donut shop his family opened more than 60 years ago, Arthur seems to have finally stopped running. The question is, has he stopped growing?
But perhaps the biggest question people were asking with this play was whether Tracy Letts, fresh from his Tony/Pulitzer/Drama Desk award winning triumph, "August: Osage County" would be able to top that triumph. The short answer is "no," but my guess is that he wasn't even trying to. My guess is this much smaller story came to him and he decided it was what ought to be next. Unfortunately, critics and audiences can be a lot less open-minded than a playwright might hope for, and Letts has endured a lot of criticism (and half-empty houses and an early closing date) for this follow-up effort.
Much of that criticism, however, is well-founded -- though it deserves mostly to be aimed at the production and not the playwright, for Letts has created an engaging, funny play that deserves our admiration. Unfortunately, he's been let down by his director, Tina Landau, who lets the play open with a sluggish, aimless pace. The supporting cast didn't seem to be giving it their all, either, though that may be due to the fact that it was two days before Christmas, the house was half-full and the play is closing on January 3. Easy to imagine their hearts might not have been entirely into it.
"Superior Donuts" doesn't really find its balance until the appearance of Franco Wicks (the energetic and sharp Jon Michael Hill), a self-described "self-starter" who talks his way into a job and starts working on improving the surroundings, starting first with his new employer. Arthur, an aging hippie, wears his hair in a pony tail. "You know who looks good in a pony tail?" he ask Arthur. "Girls...and ponies."
"Superior Donuts" is generally described as a comedy, and it has lots of funny lines. (One of my favorites being when Arthur defends himself against a charge or racism by saying to Franco "I hired you, didn't I?" To which Franco responds, "Scoot over, Lincoln, make room on the penny!"
The drama comes primarily from the fact that Franco has a secret or two that will be revealed over the course of the play, and Arthur will have the opportunity to finally complete something difficult in his life without running away from it. That moment, which happens in the very last line of the play, brings "Superior Donuts" to a tender, touching close. I'm sorry the play's run is closing, because Letts' follow-up to "August: Osage County" deserves better.
My main question is "why?" Why recycle this chestnut? The songs aren't that great and the story is hackneyed and outdated. Why did the marvelous Cheyenne Jackson decide this was the best move at this point in his career? But the biggest why is why, after the original ran for 723 performances, wasn't that enough?