Is Tracy Letts a “Great American Playwright” in the tradition of Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams? Or is he simply a playwright with a gift for engaging, entertaining characters who gives them just enough grit to make his plays seem weighty?
The truth probably lies somewhere in between, and we probably won’t actually know until he’s written a few more plays. His August: Osage County flirted with greatness enough to deserve the term “masterpiece,” putting him in a harsher spotlight than most playwrights ever have to face.
Superior Donuts artfully dodges the issue: it’s a comedy with more than a little sentimentality (but then again didn’t O’Neill write Ah Wilderness and Williams The Rose Tattoo). While things aren’t tidied up in a contrived way at the end, we can see the last few plot points coming (to Letts credit, the exact way they arrive is actually satisfying).
It is above all a very successful character sketch. Michael McKean plays Arthur, the owner of a Chicago donut shop who has cocooned himself away from the world. A Vietnam draft dodger, he suffers from the gnawing feeling that he’s a coward. But a bright-eyed, very intelligent young black kid named Franco (Jon Michael Hill) asks Arthur for a job, beginning an unexpected friendship that will change both their lives in ways that neither expects.
McKean delivers a knockout performance, really getting under Arthur’s skin. If there’s anything great about Donuts it’s the lead role, and McKean should definitely get his share of nods come award time.
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