Donut shop proprietor Arthur Przybyszewski (Michael McKean of Tracy Takes On… and This is Spinal Tap) is missing a big piece of himself, or maybe he just sprinkled that part of his soul over his life’s disappointments. Arthur doesn’t look forward to much, nor does he look back on life. He works the donut shop left in his stead by his deeply-disappointed-in-him father, handcrafting donuts by night to be served in the morning to the dwindling number of loyal commuters and neighborhood hangers-on.
There’s a Starbucks across the street and even Arthur gets his coffee there when his shop runs dry. He’s being quickly gentrified out of the ‘hood, but like an amoeba slow in wit, he waits for an unmistakable irritant to push him out the door, not having the courage to face the responsibility to make that decision himself. Having spent the better part of his life shirking obligations and running away, he now spends his days still running—in place. Arthur glides on fumes from vapors originated by his long-dead father, the post-World War II refugee who immigrated to America looking for the better life. After decades of personal upheaval and “traveling abroad” to avoid his nation’s calling, Arthur returns to Chicago in ‘78, settling back into his Jefferson Park neighborhood and taking over the donut shop in decayed Uptown. It’s safe and solid, until now.
Arthur is a man numb to his own needs. So numb, in fact, that when the shop is vandalized, the responding police officers are more concerned by Arthur’s lack of concern than the crime. For Arthur, it’s par for the course—he quietly realizes that his business is not long for this world. Never mind the vandals, it’s the disappearing customers or perhaps his Russian immigrant neighbor Max (Yasen Peyankov) that have final determination for the fate of Superior Donuts.
Thirty years after returning, Uptown is officially gentrified. Now there’s Dunkin’ Donuts, Starbucks, and freshly built condos. The poverty pockets are fewer, as are the customers who frequent Superior. One of those remaining pockets serves up Franco Wicks (Jon Michael Hill), a self-proclaimed college student taking a break from his studies. Franco wants the job vacated by the previous counter help that acrimoniously departed. Franco is black, street, geeky, and assertive. Bounding with abundant energy, he immediately has big plans to turn Superior Donuts around and give the scrubbed-clean Uptown a force to be reckoned with.
Arthur is initially weary of Franco and his “plans,” but warms as Franco inserts himself as business “partner,” cultural debating adversary, personal makeover artist, and yenta for Arthur and Officer Randy Osteen (Kate Buddeke). The closer the men become, the farther apart in reality they are. A discussion of his past hits hard for Arthur, while Franco places a literal bet as his saving grace from the poverty pocket and the sickly gangster Luther (Robert Maffia) has his own immediate expectations of Franco.
McKean easily embodies Arthur as a man who spent his youth being slick with life, who now finds life straightening him out by delivering the ultimate curse—to bare witness to the demise of his father’s dreams. Hill’s Franco comes close to the brink of stereotype in a streetwise, all-for-comic-relief black guy, and then in delicate and understated full force, honors the script and gifts the audience with a three-dimensional person that’s pays off in final epilogue.
Letts pulls back the curtain on an American society running on the last fumes of a more prosperous era, a time when a typical immigrant with only lint in his pockets would land on our shores and build his own private empire with implied and spoken guarantees that every American dream would continuously nurture that private empire. The guarantee that America’s bookmark on the world would remain in place to sustain the old and new Przybyszewski’s disappeared with the ‘70s oil crisis. Manhattan is gone, even Harlem and Brooklyn are gentrified. Oakland is the new San Francisco, and Uptown is one more townhouse development and Whole Foods away from officially being renamed North Lincoln Park.
Director Tina Landau deliciously choreographs the cast to make us purchase the emotional desolation and anticipated loss, and Loy Arcenas’s set design is an authentic representation of that last food depot holdout in all it’s grimy, oily-smelling, overheated familiarity.
Coming off critical accolades and Tony honors for August: Osage County, Letts felt he needed to “write something.” The Steppenwolf production is small, settled in the downstairs theater, but Superior Donuts delivers an unspoken reminder of our individual and intertwined fate—of what’s happening and what’s to come. Arthur’s malaise seeps in to the audience, and keeps us watching and wondering long into the night of what’s to become of our own private empires with the next wave of global events.
Superior Donuts runs until August 24th