By James Foritano
BOSTON – Pulitzer Prize winning author Tracy Letts knows his denizens of Chicago’s uptown. It’s the present, seedy but blossoming with ambiguous promise as a Starbuck opens just across the way from the down-at-the-heels, possibly on-the-way-out donut shop inherited and just barely animated by Arthur Przybyszewsky, played by Will Lebow.
Arthur’s parents knew just who and just where they were when they immigrated to Chicago’s uptown from a devastated Poland as World War II came to a close. They were strivers in a land of opportunity where just riding the bus to your own business was a high. As a kid, Arthur was enfolded in this atmosphere of success and striving.
Then came the 1950s and ‘60s. Arthur’s parents missed the ride, but Arthur was there in 1966 when Martin Luther King was pelted with firecrackers in Chicago’s Marquette Park. He was there when the Vietnam War broke out. And then he wasn’t there, but in Toronto, organized and disorganized, acting brave and feeling lost with other draft evaders.
When Jimmy Carter invited Arthur and his fellow evaders to “come on home” it just wasn’t the same Chicago or America or, incidentally, the same Arthur. This new Arthur is just barely holding it together when one of Martin Luther King’s spawn, a young black kid writing the ‘Great American novel’ applies for the job that Arthur has advertised.
Needless to say, they don’t recognize each other in so many amusing and tragic ways. Arthur, in clothes and outlook and deportment is a sputtering protest from the 1960’s; Franco, played by Omar Robinson, encapsulates the hope of that and following American decades in a way that attempts any challenge, from writing to lifting a sinking donut shop up by its bootstraps.
Both have inherited, besides “Superior Donuts”, the pathologies; think Arthur, as well as the energies, think Franco, of America’s continuing dreams and nightmares. An unlikely team that often pulls in opposite directions towards the same goal, as each sees it.
Different energies and pathologies embodied by a richly diverse supporting cast, from a “Lady” of the streets, to an upwardly mobile immigrant neighbor to cops and thugs and loan sharks erupt, with spot-on timing and impassioned acting into this uniquely American brew.
What kept the plot of Lyric Stage’s presentation of “Superior Donuts” dancing for me was the sharply but subtly delineated asymmetry of the characters, all wrestling with the “American Dream” but at different and differently slippery stages of the contest.
“Superior Donuts” was, for me, the national ‘conversation’ our pundits and politicians keep promising but never broaching, although I didn’t realize that dimension, fully, until long out onto the cold streets of Boston. I left the Lyric Stage full of the atmosphere and strivings of uptown Chicago, of typical Chicagoans whose orbits intersect profoundly, wittily and sometimes unsettlingly with our own neighborhoods and selves.
(Superior Donuts continues through February 4 at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, 140 Clarendon Street, Boston. Call (617) 585-5678.)