Monday, July 28, 2008

superior donuts

The trick with a good stage play is to make the stage go away. It’s not an easy thing to do: it’s a hulking artifact, that stage, and even if you blow away the proscenium arch you still have creaking floorboards and awkwardly placed stage props and missed entrances and forgotten lines to remind you that oh yeah: We’re here in this dark room watching a bunch of folks pretend.

Filmmakers have more of a margin to get it right. Long hours in the editing room trimming out the awkward bits give them leeway to make the magic that much more magnificent, lets us ride those few flickering hours in a state of suspended disbelief without the disruptions that real-live pretenders can introduce when they’re really live, and -- when the movie’s really good -- make us want to go back and ride it again.

Steppenwolf’s production of Tracy LettsSuperior Donuts [1] gets remarkably close to absolute crystalline suspension.

I can’t recall a single wrong note in the dialog of the play that we watched unspool yesterday afternoon, and the cast as a whole is so solid, so believable, so enjoyable to watch -- each conveying authentically that something that is born to them through family and place and in aggregate becomes this thin slice of the city that is Chicago -- the whole was so well done that I was sold on the story well-told.

There was only one awkward moment when the stage showed itself -- in a session of clumsily blocked fisticuffs that didn’t deliver the pow and bang and fury of a filmed spectacle (the addition of a few well-placed sound effects could smooth out the rough spots). And too there was the revelation at the beginning of Act II (once I consulted my program during the intermission) that the fellow playing the lead role so appealingly, and who seemed so familiar, was Michael McKean, aka Lenny from Laverne & Shirley and David St. Hubbins of This is Spinal Tap. But that displacement disappeared almost immediately, so completely does McKean occupy his role.

I was apprehensive going in. I was expecting a cranky play. The New York Times ran a piece on Letts last weekend in which he remarked on being angry when receiving his Tony -- a tangled mix of emotions that rolled out of a difficult year in which he lost his father, a member of the August cast, to lung cancer. This confirmed the read that I took last month when I asked Letts a question from the audience during his appearance at the Printers Row Book Fair -- asked him why he chose to write for the stage and not for film, when the attention that film receives, and the dollars that follow, are so much greater.

I had hoped to frame the question in a way that gave him a chance to speak to the strengths of theater -- what he thought set it apart as an experience from other dramatic arts -- but a storm was kicking up outside the tent and only part of my question made it to the podium. His reply was petulant and defensive and not at all illuminating, as if he assumed that I thought he was an idiot to write for the stage when he could be making it big in the movies -- and that he thought I was an idiot for asking it. I sat down chastened, unsatisfied, and not liking Tracy Letts all that much.

Superior Donuts, written in part before August: Osage County ever hit the stage, turned my heart in his direction again. I expect Mr. Letts is riding the tide of grief, something we all get to do, something that can make one decidedly cranky. Reasonably so.

If August and Donuts are any indication of how he will make his despair sing for us then, Mr. Letts, please take your time.

And godspeed.

p.s. Got a kick out of the fact that a line from the play has appeared here before at detritus. Consider the donut »

[1] as I post this the link to Steppenwolf is broken -- apologies -- hopefully they’ll get it fixed soon

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