” ‘Twixt optimist and pessimist/The difference is quite droll./The optimist sees the doughnut;/The pessimist sees the hole.” I suppose, by the terms of the old folk rhyme, that I’m a pessimist. More hopeful souls may find comfort in the carbohydrate theatrics of Tracy Letts’s Superior Donuts; it gave me only the harmless satisfactions of a slightly stale cruller.
Like Letts’s August: Osage County, the new work is a leftover in both the good and bad senses of the word. The long, highly factitious earlier play gave Broadway a six-course, all-you-can-eat helping of family angst, just when the commercial theater was largely starving its public with stingy 90-minute portions of nouvelle cuisine. Any serious drama it contained was strictly secondhand, but the excitement of its bigness was the genuine excitement of a feast after a famine, and its cast, mostly new to New York, made a thorough meal of it, to everybody’s delight.
Something similar happens with Superior Donuts, though the story line is as full of holes as the titular foodstuff, and the basic ingredients as tired-looking as the prop doughnuts that sit, virtually unchanged from scene to scene, on the racks behind the counter of James Schuette’s homey set.
The kind of old-Broadway show Superior Donuts represents was already becoming obsolete in my youth; after this many decades’ absence, it must look nearly new to the uninitiated. An ineffectual, Polish-American good guy (Michael McKean), his life on permanent hold behind the counter of the decaying business he inherited from his parents, finds himself, reluctantly, bonding with the gifted, desperately ambitious black youngster (Jon Michael Hill) who has become his new assistant. But a nasty secret in the youngster’s past is about to catch up with him. To combat it, his employer has to overcome the inner failing that has kept him trapped among his doughnuts.
A sympathetic policewoman (Kate Buddeke) adds a thoroughly predictable romance to the mix, while the loudmouthed Russian émigré (Yasen Peyankov) who owns the shop next door provides, at top volume, what was presumably meant to be comic relief. August had a literary garnish of T.S. Eliot. Here, Letts provides little winks at the modern-drama reading list: The Russian’s real estate acquisitiveness alludes to Chekhov’s Lopakhin; the hero’s unspellable last name, Przybyszewski, belongs to a curious figure well-known to Strindberg scholars.
As in the old-style Broadway plays that Superior Donuts recalls, a largely appealing cast and brisk direction, by Tina Landau, sugar over the play’s predictability. McKean gives the halfhearted hero a perfect balance of pathos and crustiness; Buddeke radiates genuine charm; and Hill, abetted by Letts’s highly inventive comic patter, gives the evening’s display performance—by turns funny, forceful, and touchingly tragic. Robert Maffia adds distinction to a fairly stock gangster role; as a Russian thug, Michael Garvey infuses what’s basically a sight gag with authentic feeling.Their presence, and the play’s cozily not-quite-happy ending, will probably send a lot of people home feeling good. Some may mistake that feeling for theatrical greatness; those with longer memories will note the return to Broadway, via Chicago, of business as usual.
The business that the Atlantic Theater has been getting up to lately is more troubling. It’s no crime to produce slender sketches, and School, the first of the pair the Atlantic has produced under the title Two Unrelated Plays by David Mamet, is a masterpiece of sketch writing—a terse, pungent, mordantly witty study in the way even educated people, lost in their own thoughts, fail to listen to each other or follow the logic of their conversation. School would stand out as a gem in any musical revue. Unfortunately, the Atlantic has omitted the songs and dances that should accompany it.
Instead, they merely follow it with Keep Your Pantheon, an excruciatingly prolonged, facile, and never quite funny enough excursus in which Mamet demonstrates, to nobody’s surprise, that even in ancient Rome, art was all about money. An enormous, and enormously able, cast, headed by the redoubtable Brian Murray, is wasted on this two-ton caprice, along with some lavishly funny costumes by Ilona Somogyi. The net effect of the short evening, as with the Atlantic’s prior venture into the far less proficient sketch-writing of Ethan Coen, is of a full production budget wasted on piffle. And if a nonprofit is going to spend this much money on piffle—even Mamet’s piffle—we should at least get some musical divertissements to sweeten the deal. Alternatively, at the very least, the company could find another Mamet sketch as sharp as School, throw in a few by the likes of Harold Pinter, Ring Lardner, or Ionesco, and build a genuinely festive panoply of piffling. I find it funny, btw, that some reviewers have beaten their heads about the word “unrelated” in the title. It merely means what it says—unless Mamet was trying to signal, without saying, the neighboring word “unimportant.”
Jude Law is an exciting and valuable actor. He brings a tremendous vital energy to the role of Hamlet, his choppy speech rhythms engaging in what sometimes seems like hand-to-hand combat with Shakespeare’s metrics. He seems to be fighting, too, both the prince’s melancholy and the sardonic humor with which Hamlet keeps trying to distance himself from events: Law brushes off the former impatiently, and often turns the latter into a belly laugh or an explosion of outrage. In a real production, he could be one of the great Hamlets, but the sorry news is that Michael Grandage’s dismaying, affectless plod-through, which features the dullest supporting cast I have ever seen in any Broadway production of anything, has no more to do with Shakespeare’s Hamlet than a paint-by-numbers kit has to do with Rembrandt. I doubt that Grandage meant to evoke the rotten bygone days when stars like Edmund Kean toured England, doing their star thing while some ill-prepared local stock company tromped through its provincial notion of the standard “business,” but that’s exactly what his results look like.