Sunday, November 22, 2009

Uptown is a Neighborhood, Not a Direction!

A version of this review will run in the November 23 issue of The Envoy.

It’s rare that a play can make a person homesick. You see, I grew up just outside Chicago, and Uptown, an eclectic neighborhood not far from Wrigley Field and a hop-skip-and-a-jump from the glistening shores of Lake Michigan, is where I rented my first-ever apartment. It’s also the setting of “Superior Donuts,” the newest play by Tracy Letts. It’s a gritty place, its pothole-laden streets lined with homeless shelters and seedy bars. But it’s got a tender charm and a resilient spirit that always reminds you that even when it’s down, it’s a long way from out.

Kind of like Franco Wicks (Jon Michael Hill), a young, witty Black student and aspiring novelist who saunters into a donut shop owned by Arthur Przybyszewski (Michael McKean), a 50-something Polish-American one-time Vietnam War draft-dodger. Franco is cocky and forthright, bursting with humor and a fiery intellect. He challenges the quiet, reserved Arthur to name ten Black poets to prove he’s not racist. Not five minutes after walking in, Franco’s acting like he owns the place!

But as the play’s well-crafted plot reveals, he doesn’t own much—other than a penchant for gambling and a chin-high heap of debt because of it.

Like “Superior Donuts,” Letts’ masterpiece “August: Osage County” first opened at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre to a Midwestern tornado of critical and popular praise, before making the move from the City of Big Shoulders, to the city of big, um, egos.

But whatever Tracy Letts thinks of himself, the theater world is catching on to his mastery of playwriting. “August” boasts both a Tony and a Pulitzer Prize for best play in 2008, and Broadway greeted the opening of “Superior Donuts” this October with a barrage of anticipatory buzz from critics and theatergoers.

Letts has described the play as an homage to his adopted hometown of the last twenty years or so, and under the direction of Tina Landau, it abounds with those little slices of life that scream “Chicago” without slipping into caricatured overstatement. One salient example is the way Kate Buddeke, as Officer Randy O’steen, a love interest of Arthur’s, nails the nasal accent and puffed-up swagger of an Irish-American patrolwoman from the South Side.

But hers is a role that avoids any simplistic vulgarization of the tension we might expect when a ‘60s liberal and a big-city cop wander into each other’s lives. The budding romance between Randy and Arthur is but one soft-spoken, roundabout front in Arthur’s larger internal battle to break out of his emotional comfort zone, ditch the lingering demons of his past, and live a truly principled life.

In exposition throughout the play and in a series of intimate monologues, we learn of Arthur’s rocky relationship with his immigrant father, his failed marriage and his estrangement from his only daughter. We also learn that he’s willing to cling to the stale comfort of the solitary life he’s known with a ferocity you might think a peacenik incapable of. But the bond between Arthur and the ever-hopeful Franco is what finally starts to erode that comfort enough to allow Arthur to see beyond the narrow horizon of a lonely life as Everybody’s Favorite Donut Maker, and at last dream of something more.

Maybe more than anything else, “Superior Donuts” is a play about dreaming, and how essential (and potentially dangerous) it is for us to dream in a world that will jump at the chance crush our dreams, or be just as happy to let them die a slow, suffocating death. The young Arthur dreamt of a better world. The older one daydreams in wistful “what-if’s.” Franco dreams of writing the Great American Novel. Kiril (Michael Garvey), the owner of the electronics store next door to Superior Donuts, dreams of owning a bigger store and his own home some day.

But these dreams are not treated with the unmoored optimism of that worn-out narrative found in the lore of the “American Dream.” That’s because, at root, what these characters dream of is something a lot harder to attain than a house or a career or a couple of cars in the driveway. They dream of a world where we can come from disparate corners of the globe and the ideological spectrum, yet live side-by-side, helping each other rise to the challenge of being the best people we can be. And Letts’ script embraces that most lofty of dreams, but doesn’t shy from making the point that it’s an awfully tall order to fill.

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