The news that Tracy Letts’ play, “Superior Donuts,” which was on Broadway in 2009, is being adapted as a TV series starring Broadway regular and Spotlight co-star Brian d’Arcy James (in the part originated by Michael J. McKean) and 27-year-old comic actor Jermaine Fowler (as the “kid” he hires), may be the least surprising development in the history of TV adaptations, as my review when it opened in 2009 should make clear:
What is most shocking about “Superior Donuts,” the Broadway play by Tracy Letts about an aging hippie who hires a young African-American go-getter to help him run his rundown donut shop, is that it is not shocking at all. It resembles a TV show; “sitcom” has been used almost as frequently to describe it as “sweet.” The sweet has been meant as a pun; the sitcom has not been intended as a put-down. (That’s a shock too.)
Those who saw “August: Osage County” by the same playwright can understand some of the surprise– the much-praised winner of the 2008 Best Play Tony and Best Drama Pulitzer, while full of humor and pathos, offered one jolt after another as its tale unfolded of a family afflicted by suicide, addiction, child molestation, incest, adultery, betrayal, deep regrets and deeper unhappiness.
But you would have to go back further to get a fuller appreciation of how different “Superior Donuts” is from any Tracy Letts play previously produced in New York.
In “Killer Joe,” which was last produced in New York in 1998, a drug dealer in debt gives his virgin sister over to a police detective/hired hit man as payment to kill their mother for the insurance money. It does not go as planned. “Nothing’s worse than regrets, not cancer, not being eaten by a shark, nothing,” the brother says in the cheap trailer outside Dallas that is his father’s and his sister’s home. The play is such an over-the-top horror show about stereotypical trailer trash, extremely violent and intentionally ugly, that it comes off as a vicious parody of family life. By contrast, “August: Osage County” seems almost like a comedy of manners.
“Bug,” which I saw at the Barrow Street Theater in 2004, was an even more explicit horror show. Agnes is a drug abusing motel-dweller with an abusive ex-con for an ex-husband and a child who vanished years ago – “I just get sick of it, my lousy life. Laundromats and grocery stores, dumb marriages and lost kids.” She takes in an oddly hypnotic stranger named Peter, who was either a veteran of the Gulf War and the victim of a government conspiracy to implant him with insect eggs, or a delusional paranoid. In either case, Peter infects Agnes – either with his bugs, or with his paranoia. “Bug” later became a horror movie directed by William Friedkin, best known for “The Exorcist.”
As Tracy Letts’ own mother, a novelist named Billie Letts, reportedly once said of his work: “Everybody in Tracy’s stories gets naked or dead.”
A clue to the Letts approach may be in a scene from his far milder play, “Man from Nebraska,” which, as far as I know, has not been done in New York. It debuted in 2003 at the Steppenwolf Theater Company in Chicago, the company of which Letts is a member as an actor and director as well as a playwright. Ken Carpenter, a middle-aged God-fearing family man from Lincoln, Nebraska wakes up one day and breaks down, realizing that he has lost his faith; he no longer believes in God. Acting on advice from his pastor, he takes a break from his life, leaving his wife while he goes on vacation in London, where he eventually befriends a black woman bartender named Tamyra and her flat-mate Harry, a sculptor. He begins to take lessons from the sculptor, using the woman as his model.
Harry the sculptor looks at Ken’s work and tells him to “exaggerate” it. “There’s no point in producing Tamyra again: she already exists. I mean, yes, you want to have the ability to do that: that’s craft. But your belief, your expression of your belief: that’s art.”
And so we come to his play at the Music Box Theater.
Franco Wicks, 21 (Jon Michael Hill) walks into Superior Donuts in response to a Help Wanted sign. But the owner, Arthur Przybyszewksi (Michael McKean), whose shop has just been vandalized, and whose ex-wife recently died of cancer, doesn’t want to open for the day, much less hire anybody. Franco talks his way into the shop and into the job. Just after they shake hands on it, Arthur asks Franco where he’s from, and he tells him he has lived his whole life in the area, the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago.
Arthur: How come I’ve never seen you in here?
Franco: I don’t eat no nasty-ass donuts.
This got a big laugh in the performance I attended. I am assuming that some of this is based on the titillation that Broadway audiences consistently get from the utterance of even mildly naughty words; part of it is the surprising sassiness of this response.
But the young man, who we find out later is desperately in debt, had just barely managed through cleverness and persistence to get a job from this stranger. Would he then immediately tell his new boss how much he hated the product that the man sells?
It is hard to discern a realistic characterization here. It is an exaggeration. But unlike the Sam Shepard/Martin McDonagh-like violent exaggerations of Letts’ earlier works, this one has the rhythms of a television comedy.
There are moments in “Superior Donuts” where he does himself a disservice by establishing these rhythms. Among the nine characters in the play is one of the few regular customers of the donut shop, an alcoholic and probable street person whom everybody calls Lady (played by Jane Alderman). At one point Arthur, who has not seen his own daughter for five years, asks Lady whether she has any kids.
“Oh, sure. Two boys, two girls,” she answers. “One of em’s still alive.”
This too got a big laugh, as if it were a one-liner — a reaction that, judging by the dialogue that follows, in which she explains how her children died, was not what Letts was trying for.
The plot also follows a familiar and overly contrived television formula, the two men from very different worlds overcoming obstacles both external and internal, and changing one another for the better. And, to complete the TV picture, there is the rest of the cast of characters, who, if this were in fact on television, would be called wacky: The police officer (James Vincent Meredith) who likes to dress up like Captain Kirk and attend Star Trek conventions, and his lady cop partner (Kate Buddeke); the heavily-accented Russian Max (Yasen Peyankov) who owns the DVD store next to the donut shop and wants to buy Arthur out so that he can expand, and Max’s recently-immigrated nephew Kiril (Michael Garvey) who is as big as a truck and as shy as a little girl; and two thugs who provide the catalyzing tension in the play, Luther (Robert Maffia) who drinks milk for his ulcer, and his henchman Kevin (Cliff Chamberlain.)
What saves “Superior Donuts” from standard small-screen mediocrity are the down-to-earth performances, especially by McKean (who, ironically or not, is probably best known for his role as Lenny in “Laverne & Shirley,” but who has been a regular in Christopher Guest’s satirical films, such as “A Mighty Wind” and “Best in Show”, and has a list of Broadway credits, including last year’s “The Homecoming” by Harold Pinter); credible details of character that TV writers don’t have time for; and, beneath the jokes and the heartfelt hopefulness, an undercurrent of sorrow, regret, isolation and even ugliness that would probably keep ratings too low for prime-time.
The bio for Tracy Letts in the play’s program includes the information that he has appeared as an actor in half a dozen television series. But it also mentions that he authored an adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s “Three Sisters.” Given the presence in “Superior Donuts” of Max the Russian, who bears a resemblance to the ambitious ex-peasant Lopakhin in “The Cherry Orchard,” I suspect that the effect that Letts hoped for was less Norman Lear and more Chekhov, who strove to find both the humor and the tragedy in the dreary lives of people forced to find their way through cataclysmic changes in the world around them. Or maybe Letts just wanted a break.