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09.30.09

Broadway's Sweet New Play

Michael McKean and Broadway newcomer Jon Michael Hill shine in Superior Donuts, the new play from Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy Letts. Rachel Syme spoke with the stars before tonight's opening curtain.

Michael McKean and Broadway newcomer Jon Michael Hill shine in Superior Donuts, the new play from Pulitzer Prize-winner Tracy Letts. Rachel Syme spoke with the stars before tonight's opening curtain.

Writing a Tony-winning play can be a curse. There are the accolades, the applause, and the Hollywood deals, of course, not to mention the chance to open another play on Broadway, but the expectations for the next opening double. And when the first play also wins the Pulitzer, they triple. This is the high-stakes energy swirling around Superior Donuts, the second Broadway outing from Chicago playwright Tracy Letts, whose first New York outing, August: Osage County, won every award imaginable. When Letts' three-hour opus about a dysfunctional Oklahoma family opened on Broadway in 2008, critics hailed him as theater's new hope, the next Miller or Kushner. The play went on to become one of the longest running straight plays in New York history, and has since started a national tour, with a film adaptation in the works.

“Being human in part is being slammed down occasionally,” McKean says. “There is a new line in the play where I say, ‘I didn’t know you couldn’t raise a kid without hope,’ and for so long Arthur has had none.”

Letts and his cast can breathe deeply today. While a far less ambitious play than August, with its three-story set and sprawling cast, Superior Donuts is no less successful for what it aims to be: a tender, funny, and often tragic valentine to Letts' Chicago in a time of intense cultural change. Fans of August won't find that play's heavy, gut-wrenching revelations here, but Donuts was always intended to be a smaller, lighter effort, as delightful and sweet as a doughnut itself. The play, which Letts began writing even before August, earned positive reviews when it first opened in Chicago with the same cast in July 2008, and after a year of Letts' tweaks and rewrites, it may be even better.

What makes Donuts such a joy to watch is the crackling rapport between its two lead characters, played by Broadway (and Spinal Tap) veteran Michael McKean and newcomer Jon Michael Hill. McKean plays Arthur Przybyszewski, aka Arthur P., a former draft dodger and current owner of a crumbling Polish doughnut shop in Chicago's gritty but gentrifying Uptown. Hill, a young company member at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater, where both August and Donuts originated, plays Franco Wicks, a college dropout who takes an open counter position at the shop. The chemistry between McKean's Arthur, an aging hippie type with ripped jeans and a ponytail, and Hill's Franco, who is all swagger and explosive movements, is undeniable.

“I really like working with this guy,” says McKean, sitting with Hill in a dressing room before a preview matinee. “There's not a nerve in my body when I'm working with him. We're just…dancing out there. He's a much better dancer than me, actually. Better singer, too. In fact, he's starting to piss me off.”

Hill shoves McKean in the shoulder; McKean bellows, “Not to believe a word this guy says!” They both chuckle with the kind of mischievous camaraderie that implies nights of male bonding. Hill nods toward an empty fifth of Knob Creek bourbon on his dressing room shelf. “I invite the older cast members to my room for drinks sometimes,” he says, after McKean leaves to rehearse a fight scene (fun fact: The 61-year-old slams someone with a napkin holder). “That last scene's a killer, and sometimes we have to take the edge off.”

Gallery: Broadway’s Fall PreviewSuperior Donuts may not enjoy the same record-breaking run as August, but it stands to make both McKean and Hill the buzz boys of the fall season. McKean has already appeared on Broadway four times, notably in Hairspray and Harold Pinter's The Homecoming, but he takes new risks in Donuts, performing monologues in spotlight about Arthur's tortured history, including war protests, a failed marriage, and other family demons.

McKean looks so fragile and world-weary as he speaks in his Chicago accent, he seems to require rescue. “Being human in part is being slammed down occasionally,” he says in the dressing room. “There is a new line in the play where I say, 'I didn't know you couldn't raise a kid without hope,' and for so long Arthur has had none.”

Hill is a refreshing addition to the Broadway scene—he appeared in Shakespeare in the Park last summer, but has no other big-city credits—and as the fast-talking, deal-making Franco, he steals almost every scene he appears in. The actor may not be tall in person (“I don't have the looks for film or TV,” he says, bashfully), but he is expansive on stage, rapping, dancing, reciting poetry, and spouting ideas about the American Dream in rapid succession. He affects a kind of theatrical case of ADHD, jumping all over the stage with new ideas, including an open mic night, a healthier doughnut recipe, and a stack of notebooks that he claims hold the “Great American Novel” inside.

“Franco embodies hope and progress and taking a chance,” Hill says. “In a way, this is the play of Barack Obama's presidency, set with that sort of audacious hope. But there are always setbacks. Nothing's one-sided.”

As he implies, all of Franco's wishful exclamations set the character up for a devastating fall, one that shocks the audience with the same kind of sudden gut-punch Letts sprinkled throughout August. “The stakes are so, so high for this kid,” says Hill. “He's seriously in debt to some very bad guys, he desperately wants someone to read his book and love it because he thinks it will change the world. He needs the doughnut shop to become profitable so that he can finally have a little bit of money. He's so invested in this dream of becoming a writer that any encouragement sends him flying. It's scary, even from the beginning, to imagine the letdown.”

This pending fear of letdown is what makes Superior Donuts unique; the sense that the American Dream is hanging by on a thread for all the characters involved. As the shop's Russian neighbor says to Arthur early on, “You sell doughnut and no one wants doughnut anymore! People now, they eat yogurt and banana… Doughnut is like videotape, it is over! Time change everything and doughnut has been left behind.”

But McKean's Arthur still clings to his doughnut enterprise, and Franco clings to his novel, and together they unite to attack the world. “This play is about claiming yourself,” says McKean. “It's not about burying yourself. You're the only hand up your own puppet.”

Off-stage as well, McKean and Hill seem bound together, confronting the pressures of the high-profile New York opening as a unit. “Michael has no ego about him,” says Hill. “He's just the most generous partner you can have; he makes us all music mixes. He pushes me around like an older brother.”

McKean adds: “I've been working with this cast for a year, and the transition to Broadway is seamless. We are just so pleased. It's the dream audience—attentive, warm to the play, they are ready to laugh and ready to cry.” He smiles. “And there are only a few a-holes who forget to turn off their cellphones before we start.”

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Rachel Syme is culture editor of The Daily Beast.