Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Superior Donuts

Michael McKean and Jon Michael Hill
Photo by Robert J. Saferstein

I wasn’t a fan of Tracy Letts’s popular, Tony Award-winning August: Osage County, and his sophomore Broadway outing, Superior Donuts, has both more and less to offer. Crispy directed by Tina Landau, acted with empathy and precision, and designed with evocative realism (down to the chewing gum pressed underneath the donut shop tables and counter), the play is a squarely conventional story told without much theatrical innovation. Letts’s women characters aren’t the shrewish matriarchs of Osage, but neither are they three-dimensional people with the emotional heft and attractions of the two leading men.

Arthur Przybyszewski (Michael McKean), who owns the donut shop in which the play takes place, arrives one morning which should be like any of the many others he’s spent in the place over his 50+ years to find the glass front door shattered and “PUSSY” written in dripping red paint across the wall behind the counter. Although the beat police who frequent Superior Donuts are on the scene even before Arthur, it becomes quickly clear that the crime has been perpetrated by a disgruntled former employee whom we never see. Instead, in the lightly comic banter that establishes both character and plot, the break-in provides the occasion for defining the racial politics of the neighborhood.

At this moment, apparently Russians, Polish people, and African Americans vie for social dominance in Chicago’s Uptown. Max Tarasov (Yasen Peyankov), the brusque, entrepreneurial, heavily accented middle-age Russian man who aggressively bids to buy the donut shop, automatically suspects the “black hoodlums” he sees as the root of the neighborhood’s decline. With each racial slur he pronounces in his comically mistaken syntax, he adds, “You should excuse the expression,” so that he won’t offend Officer James Bailey (James Vincent Meredith), the African American patrolman who examines the scene with his partner, Officer Randy Osteeen (Kate Buddeke). Bailey’s eye-rolls become increasingly pronounced as Max’s diatribe intensifies, until finally, he’s required to intimidate Max physically to get him to stop talking.

Their exchanges are funny in a pat, liberal, “isn’t race a bitch?” sort of way. But Max’s suspicions about the neighborhood’s “obvious,” “natural” criminals is allowed to stand, even when Letts establishes that the (presumably white) ex-employee broke down Arthur’s door and slurred his name. Max finally leaves, and James mutters something about Russians and Polish people being what’s wrong with the neighborhood. The supposedly affectionate tit-for-tat racism is supposed to defuse any lingering ill-will. But instead, that opening exchange actually haunts the story, as Arthur cautiously establishes a relationship with Franco Wicks (Jon Michael Hill), a young African American man who turns up looking for a job.

Arthur is an aging Hippy who’s stuck in the rut of making and selling donuts out of a shop his father founded a generation before him. In stilted monologues lit only by a strangely out of place white follow spot, Arthur periodically tells the audience about his life to date: his divorce, necessitated by Arthur’s inability to communicate emotionally or to shake off his taciturn nature; the loss of his daughter in the bargain, who drives off with his wife at 13-years-of-age and whom Arthur still hasn’t seen six years later; and his failure to meet his father’s expectations of what it means to be a man, since when he’s drafted, Arthur dodged his patriotic duty by leaving for Canada instead of serving his country as his father expected.

A generous reading would find
Superior Donuts a warm, wistful, and wry investigation into white liberal masculinity, when the ideals of the 60s have long given way to new, less noble values. Arthur still wears Grateful Dead t-shirts, for which Franco teases him mercilessly, and his hair is pulled back a long gray pony-tail that doesn’t flatter his face or his figure (Franco quips that pony tails are for little girls and ponies). He’s immobilized in his life, unable to move forward or back, caught by the spotlight’s white glare in old family narratives that he can’t fix or escape.

Franco’s appearance begins to shake up Arthur’s hopeless, frozen complacency. Played by Hill with deft comic timing, fresh emotional openness, and a physical ease that fills the stage with the bounce of his spirit, Franco diagnoses Arthur’s problem in one glance and goes on to provide him a happy counter-example. Franco might be broke (the fact that he’s in debt to a loan shark for $16,000 of gambling debt is the plot’s most contrived point), but he’s got ambition and confidence, and easily talks the reluctant Arthur (whom he quickly dubs “Arthur P,” since he can’t pronounce his Polish last name) into hiring him. The men embark on a tentative friendship, with Arthur pulling back as Franco pushes forward, and eventually, vice versa.

Franco’s secret is that he’s written the “great American novel,” a manuscript called
America Will Be, after a Langston Hughes poem. The pages of Franco’s book are collected in mismatched notebooks and notepads held together by bungee cords in an unwieldy package that Franco carries in his backpack. As he pulls it out proudly, he announces that this is his only copy, which he hasn’t “put it in a computer or anything.” According to the conventions of theatrical realism, such a remark can only signal that the manuscript isn’t long for this world. The facility (in both senses of the word) of Letts’s writing insures that we know the novel won’t make it to the play’s end; once Arthur reads it and pronounces it good, too much rides on the manuscript as the vehicle of Franco’s deliverance for it to actually fulfill its promise.

Spoiler alert!]

Neither man knows how to get the manuscript to people who might be able to publish it, dooming what very well might be Franco’s unique voice to the violent vagaries of the loan sharks (Luther Flynn, played by Robert Maffia, and his henchman Kevin Magee, played by Cliff Chamberlain), who destroy the book when they exact their vengeance for Franco’s unpaid loan.

When, in the second act, Office Bailey tells Arthur that Franco’s been hurt—Luther and his boy cut off three of Franco’s fingers—and his book trashed, the audience the afternoon I saw the play (Saturday, October 17th) gasped collectively. As my theatre-going companion LB Clark asked, what is it about a play like this that can manipulate so many spectators into such a unison response, even when some of us could have written this predictable outcome ourselves?

That collective expression of spectatorial dismay could be because, to Letts’s credit,
Superior Donuts has painted Franco as such a winning, likable character, the sudden dead-ending of his dreams through the destruction of his manuscript feels like a real emotional blow. Letts has persuaded us to like Franco, to believe in him and his ability to shift not just his own fortunes, but Arthur’s, too. Under Franco’s quick and cajoling care, Arthur starts to come out of his shell. He teaches Franco how to make the donuts, an implicit act of trust, while Franco teaches Arthur how to ask Randy, the lonely policewoman, out for a date. The boy’s wit and fluidity with language—he speaks in a mixture of hip hop cadences and “plain” English that’s the most lyrical, poetic part of Letts’s play—along with his emotional candor and optimism, begins to pry the lid off Arthur’s reticence.

Played with subtly and grace by Michal McKean, Arthur’s face gradually becomes more mobile, his expressions broader and more open, almost as if we’re watching his features crack open at the start of a long-awaited thaw. McKean’s body begins as a still, lethargic, practically absent presence on stage, and gradually, through his enlivening interactions with Franco, begins to be re-inhabited by a gentle, caring man with a sweet sense of humor and a beguiling manner. He gathers his courage to ask Randy for a date, an invitation that gets her happily out of her masculine police-wear into a frilly flowered dress in which she bustles around behind the counter in the second act, already settling into a wifely domestic role.

But unfortunately, the road to happiness for the play’s white characters is literally paved with the blood of the African American young man. The characters’ business at the top of the second act prepares for Franco’s homecoming after his “accident,” with everyone readying the donut shop as if for a victory party. But when Franco arrives, the once garrulous, sweet-talking young man has been rendered mute. He sports a bulky bandage on his right hand, and his stature seems literally reduced.

Franco barely speaks through the rest of the play. Instead, he cries silently, mourning his newly abridged future as Arthur tries to persuade him that
America Will Be can still be, that he still has his story, even if his manuscript has been cruelly destroyed. The play’s end painfully illustrates how American drama still relies on shopworn racial conventions in its plotting. Even in a play that wants to be progressive, as does Superior Donuts, people of color continue to provide the vehicle for white people’s growth and self-discovery instead of their own.

Superior Donuts, as its name suggests, is essentially “culinary,” as Brecht might describe it, in that it provides audiences with an easily digestible evening of racial encounters (in a kind of low-fat cruller sort of way) that lets a white spectator go home satisfied that progress—for them, at least—is possible. The humor Letts employs helps establish that tone. Franco’s first act banter is wise and funny; he makes jokes at Arthur’s expense, but always with affection and respect. For instance, suggesting he remake his appearance, Franco tells Arthur that the Grateful Dead probably doesn’t need a new drummer.

The jokes—which appear to be at the white liberal’s expense—bring easy, even knowing laughs that set up the cheap manipulative pathos that follows. Arthur learns to laugh at himself and his outmoded ways, while Letts also establishes his liberal credentials: Franco lets him read his manuscript only when Arthur proves he can name ten African American poets.

But all of Arthur’s liberal generosity—including the fact that he pays off Franco’s loan—can’t keep the African American young man from being hobbled, physically or psychically. Arthur decides to sell the store to the over-eager Russian Max at the play’s end, which provides him the seed money for his new life. Franco, the articulate, smart, hopeful vehicle of Arthur’s redemption, is left fingerless and jobless, alone without an employer, a friend, or a manuscript.

Superior Donuts’s production—which transferred from Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago—is impeccable, although its slick values underline the injustice of its pat plot. Landau’s fluid, confident direction keeps the narrative moving—despite Arthur’s awkward, confessional, direct-address monologues that pepper the play’s first act—and the laughs well timed.

The performances bring nuance and depth to characters that could too easily be stereotypes, including the loan sharks and the large, non-English speaking Russian who Max brings to intimidate Luther and Kevin. Hill and McKean form a lovely camaraderie, playing off one another with appealing ease, humor, and good-will.

James Schuette’s beautiful set evokes a frozen Chicago winter. Outside the shop’s door and front windows, the audience can see the narrow street, a parked car, a parking meter, and various pedestrians hurrying by as snowflakes occasionally drift down from the flies. The donut shop’s dilapidated state feels real enough that you can practically smell the old fryer oil, the exhaust from which has marked the walls with grime. The masking tape on which Arthur (or his father) has penciled the names of the pastries peels around the edges, the letters fading.

By the evening’s end, all this investment of talent and energy—in the acting, design, direction, and writing—seems squandered on a plot that tells a story as old and used up as the last, stale donut of the day, the one far less edible than its fresh superiors. What a shame that that donut represents Letts’s play.

The Feminist Spectator

Monday, October 05, 2009

Let Me Down Easy

Anna Deavere Smith in Let Me Down Easy
at Second Stage Theatre
(photo by Joan Marcus)

Anna Deavere Smith’s Let Me Down Easy represents a departure from the typical tone and trajectory of her “On the Road” cycle of monologues. Smith established her talent in the early ‘90s, after many years working in regional theatres, as an artist/anthropologist who interviews people in community settings and then performs their words verbatim. She argues that people’s language and their voices—their syntax, their inflections, the rhythm of their words and their cadence—reveal their character, and that through meticulously recreating their speech acts in the context of often vexed or conflictual community relations, something of the larger character of America is also revealed.

Smith’s first major success, Fires in the Mirror, for instance, addressed the civil strife between the African American and Chasidic communities of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, after the chief rabbi’s motorcade inadvertently hit and killed a young black boy named Gavin Cato. Smith spent time in Crown Heights interviewing people about the incident, all of whom were involved to varying degrees and spoke from opposing points of view. She also interviewed people who simply shared a unique perspective on the tension, including Al Sharpton and Cornel West.

Smith channeled the voices of all the people she interviewed through her own body and vocal impersonations, editing the time she spent with each one into a meaningful bite of sound and then weaving them into a tapestry of character and viewpoints on the central conflict. Smith doesn’t presume to “become” any of these (real) characters. Conventional actors typically ask the audience to suspend its disbelief while they make interior emotional connections that allow them to identify psychologically with the fictional character. Smith works from the outside in, mimicking the complexity of individual language and voice as a way to reveal something human, surprising, and true about people we might suspect of being stereotypical and predictable.

In her second large-scale piece, Twilight, LA, Smith brought a similar anthropological outlook to the civil uprising in Los Angeles after local courts returned a “not guilty” verdict to the police officers accused of beating Rodney King for a traffic violation. For Twilight, Smith’s interviews ranged across and among an even larger community of people, as the Los Angeles uprising crossed community lines and included African Americans, Latinos, Asians and Asian Americans, and white people as subjects with keen perspectives on the events. In a nuanced reference, “Twilight” refers both to the liminal moment between day and night, the in-between time in which crisis perhaps gives rise to social change, and to the gang member whom Smith interviewed as part of the palate of citizens whose perspectives enlightened her and her audiences about the LA events.

Subsequent productions never quite gelled as much as these notable, groundbreaking earlier works. House Arrest, for which Smith interviewed various political players in Washington, DC, during the Clinton administration, felt like a demonstration of her own access to power more than it offered a trenchant view of the operative mentality of those running the nation.

Let Me Down Easy, though, breaks the mold of Smith’s work by foregoing her usual immersion in communities rife with conflict. No “us v. them” structures the play, and no sense of traditional dramatic agon pulls the show from crisis to resolution. Instead, the social crisis of the American medical establishment motivates Smith’s examination; as she notes in the program, the play began as a commission for the Yale School of Medicine. (See also the feature piece by Susan Dominus published in The New York Times Magazine Sunday, October 4, 2009--on the internet September 30, 2009--at I also wrote about an earlier version of this piece, presented at the Zach Scott Theatre in Austin, Texas, in The Feminist Spectator.)

But the people she interviews and impersonates demonstrate more subtle and complex perspectives in a social investigation that winds up addressing death, dying, and what we make of our lives before we get there more than it does the failing medical system that purports to give us care. The show, as a result, doesn’t ask the audience to take sides or to consider deeply opposing points of view, as did Fires and Twilight, but lets us muse together for 95 minutes on what defines us as human beings in the face of our inevitable demise.

The people Smith weaves together into this thoughtful human tapestry vary wildly not just by occupation and profession, geography and locale, or by their relative relationships to social power, but also in temperament and character, gender and race, class and accent, which makes each impersonation a pleasant surprise. The play’s theme doesn’t predict who Smith will consult for opinions, and the juxtapositions of speakers’ preoccupations and voices are sometimes funny, sometimes poignant, and always fascinating and compelling.

In the first six portraits alone, Smith performs James Cone, a famous African American theologian who loves to think about language and what it means to his community and provides Smith with her show’s title; Elizabeth Streb, a white post-modern dancer who accidentally sets herself on fire while performing for her female partner’s birthday party, and finds in her trauma the astonished, boastful pride of a survivor; Lance Armstrong, who sees his body as a nearly mechanical balance of weight and power that demands the most minute calibrations; Sally Jenkins, a sports writer who describes how athletes are driven to burn themselves up in the effort of exertion they make look easy; Eve Ensler, the feminist theatre artist famous for writing the now ubiquitous Vagina Monologues and the V-Day activism that supports annual readings of the play, who shares with Smith her suspicion that anorexia is a plot to rob women and girls of their power, since, as she says, it’s difficult to get much done when you’re only eating a raisin a day; and Brent Williams, an Idaho rodeo rider who wears a cowboy hat and pulls on a beer while he tells Smith about his high threshold for pain.

These characters alone provide a rich collection of stories, insights, accents, and body types. In fact, thinking back, even though Smith is costumed (by Ann Hould-Ward) only with a striped sports jacket for one person, a couple of rings for another, or a hat of some sort for a third, I can see the bull rider’s lanky height, Armstrong’s arrogant muscular slouch, Ensler’s stolid feminist force, Streb’s physical euphoria, Cone’s expansive girth and gestures, and Jenkins’ firecracker countenance and humor as clearly as I remember Smith’s white shirt and black trousers, the neutral palette onto which all these people’s personalities are painted.

In Let Me Down Easy, even more than in her earlier virtuosic performances, Smith seems to have settled in to her informants’ stories and the possibilities of what they might mean, knit together into an evening. She seems to have less of an ax to grind here, ironically. In an historical moment when health care is debated on the front page of every newspaper, and the fractious debate over public options spouts from so many lips, this show doesn’t directly engage the terms of that dispute. As a result, Smith—who vehemently protests her objectivity in productions in which it’s impossible not to presume she doesn’t take one side or the other—appears even-handed and magnanimous with her characters. She seems to enjoy playing them, speaking as them, sharing their insights. The implicit—and sometimes overt—didacticism of Fires and Twilight is absent in Let Me Down Easy.

In fact, Smith’s performance seems filled with an outsized joy, which flatters her virtuosity by almost understating her talent. Each character’s name and the title of their monologue is projected as a superscript on the frame above the stage. Smith (directed by Leonard Foglia) moves fluidly among them, reaching the final comment of each monologue that usually punctuates and often titles the idea at hand. Then she takes off the character’s defining costume piece or prop, lifts the next from the hands of a nondescript female assistant who enters and exits the stage—barefoot, like Smith—delivering each object or bit of apparel, drapes herself in its spell and launches into the spirit she inhabits next. You can see Smith in the interstices between characters. She’s a thoughtful, purposeful, precise presence, the guiding spirit of the piece who’s moved by her appreciation of the people to whom she gives voice and embodies.

Let Me Down Easy is as trenchant a political commentary as any of Smith’s shows, but because she creates an “us” or a “we” instead of the binary of conflicting “thems,” the production feels generous and forgiving, its humor poignant instead of pedantic. Points of view accumulate onstage, rather than replacing one another. The costume pieces and props that index each person literally litter the stage by the play’s end, as each character is haunted by those preceding him or her. The collection of things points to a collectivity of people and perspectives that’s oddly comforting. The show is about death and dying, loss and grief, but also about how we live in the meantime. As each character Smith performs eats, drinks, smokes, and chats, we see people extremely different from one another nonetheless sustaining themselves in simple, basic ways that seem familiar and communal.

Smith had a head cold the afternoon I saw one of the last preview week performances (September 30, 2009). Because she removed the same blue hanky from her pocket to blow her nose as she performed several different characters, it seemed as though they all shared the same cold, an inadvertent but moving coincidence. The gesture also made it easy to remember Smith’s presence, although in this show, she doesn’t seem to want us to forget that she’s there, mediating these stories, providing the vehicle that drops each character into our lives and carries them too quickly back out.

The beautifully crafted production offers a lovely backdrop to Smith’s impersonations. The spare set (by Riccardo Hernandez) includes a modern white couch and coffee table stage right, offset by a white dinner table and chairs stage left, at which several characters take their meal. The warm, intimate setting is framed by five tall screens/mirrors that tilt from the top over the set, vaguely diffusing what spectators see reflected. Sometimes, Smith is seen live in the mirrors, although her image is swirled by some surface distortion; other times, Smith’s character is projected onto the surface as though he or she is looking into a camera. The woody, golden aura is sculpted by subtle, architectural light (by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer), and a soft soundscape textures the play’s aural mood.

The Wednesday matinee audience with whom I watched the play seemed to appreciate Smith’s observations and insights, and she spoke directly to them under the guise of character. Her impersonation of the now late, former governor of Texas, Ann Richards, who nonchalantly describes how she has to preserve her “chi” for herself is a memorable crowd-pleaser, but spectators also responded enthusiastically to the lesser-known characters. Ruth Katz, a patient at Yale New Haven Hospital whose file is lost through staff ineptitude, garnered particular appreciation, as did the plight of physician Kiersta Kurtz-Burke, describing how she waited to be rescued with her patients at Charity Hospital in New Orleans after Katrina hit, and her dawning realization that no one really did care about the poor, elderly people of color for whom she cared.

Toward the play’s end, a few of the monologues seem superfluous, although thinking back, I can’t imagine Let Me Down Easy without any one of the stories. But the 95 minutes feel a bit long by the end, the stories a bit repetitive, even in their differences. Or maybe it’s that the string of tales makes your heart a bit too tender to bear the narratives for much longer.

The penultimate monologue, Trudy Howell’s story about a dying young girl in an orphanage in South Africa who packs her suitcase to go off to see her already deceased mother, leaves an indelible image. Likewise, Smith ends the play performing a Buddhist monk, who demonstrates how life finally runs out by overturning a full tea cup into his palm and letting the liquid pool on the stage floor as the lights around Smith turn green and deep blue.

Let Me Down Easy does justice to its title and to its audience, delivering us into the pointed grace of its ending.

The Feminist Spectator