Donuts and Dilaudid

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

What do you do after your sprawling, three-hour play about America in decline wins the Pulitzer Prize for drama? That's a problem most aspiring playwrights — to say nothing of established writers — would love to have; but it's nevertheless been a problem for Tracy Letts. Letts is the writer of popular, short shockers, like Killer Joe and Bug, who then decided to write something long and serious. That play turned out to be August: Osage County, which won the Tony, the Pulitzer, and is now touring the country in a production starring Oscar-winner Estelle Parsons. (After stops in Denver and San Francsico, August: Osage County has been playing here in Los Angeles at the Ahmanson since last month).

In the two years since August: Osage County started bringing in crowds and earning rave reviews, Letts has been working on another play. He's said in interviews that his follow up to August started as an exercise — and indeed, Superior Donuts, which opened two weeks ago on Broadway feels somewhat tentative. Lacking the sure-handed grasp of his characters or their environment displayed in Bug or August, Letts (also an accomplished actor) feels like he's trying something on for size.

donuts4880.jpgSuperior Donuts is about a middle-aged man who's let his life and his shop go to seed. Enter a young, black, wisecracking kid who brings sunlight into both the donut shop and his personal life. Now, if this sounds like something you might have watched 20 years ago (right after Diff'rent Strokes and right before Silver Spoons) well, that's what Superior Donuts feels like: a sit-com.

Now, in a world where cute, well-written, earnest sit-coms have been replaced by The Bachelor and Rock of Love, one can understand why audiences are responding to what is in essence a two-hour sit-com, complete with a former sit-com star (Michael McKean, of Laverne & Shirley) in the lead role of Arthur P. the donut maker.

donuts3972.jpgBut even if you're willing to pay Broadway prices for a sit-com, you might expect some mastery of the form. Letts doesn't feel like he's paying homage to the Norman Lear-era sitcoms of pre-cable television, it feels as if he accidentally found himself writing one and then tried to make the best of it. The result, as a friend put it, is like if August Wilson were hired to write a spin-off of Gimme a Break. It may be well-meaning and hard to hate (and hey, you've got to follow up your Pulitzer winner with something); but as theater — Broadway or otherwise — Superior Donuts just feels wrong.

august9.jpgFor all its honors, August: Osage County had its detractors too. Speaking of sit-coms, Hilton Als of The New Yorker infamously compared it to Mama's Family. I disagree. Watching the touring production at the Ahmanson last month, I was reminded of how strong the dramatic foundations are in August: Osage County. The characters are all expertly drawn and the scenes that reveal the Weston family's backstory display a fine balance of present action and past gravity.

The Ahmanson is not the best place to see an intimate play (despite good seats, I still felt far from the action) and the touring cast is uneven (director Anna Shapiro needs to fly in and crack the whip on some of the actors) but the play still holds up well on a second viewing. Act II is a still a powerhouse and Parsons holds the show together as Violet, the pill-popping Weston matriarch.

Is August: Osage County an American classic? Only time will tell — what this touring production confirms is that it is still the most significant American play in recent years. Regardless of whether it becomes a play for all times, it is very much a play for our times.

August: Osage County concludes its run at the Ahmanson Theatre this Sunday; Superior Donuts continues on Broadway at the Music Box Theatre.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

Banner image: Robert J. Saferstein