Tracy Letts, the ‘Superior’ actors’ writer

Bill Geisslinger and Vin Shambry in "Superior Donuts" at Artists Rep. Photo: Owen Carey.

By Bob Hicks

When you see the killer-good performances in Artists Repertory Theatre‘s current hit Superior Donuts, remember this: Tracy Letts is an actor. And when actors write plays, they write them with actors in mind.

Letts, the Steppenwolf Theatre stalwart who won the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize for his 2008 family drama August: Osage County, has a long history with Artists Rep, which has also produced his plays Bug and Killer Joe and commissioned his adaptation of Chekhov’s Three Sisters. In each case, viewers argued about the literary quality of the scripts, but most everyone agreed they made for terrific performances.

Which brings up an interesting point: If a script creates juicy roles, doesn’t that mean it’s a good script? If it gives actors the opportunity to do the things actors do best, is that somehow different from literary quality? Or is performance its own thing?

Comfortability isn’t precisely what you’re looking for when you go out for a night at the theater — at least, not always or foremost — but what I loved about seeing Superior Donuts on Tuesday night is that it invited me to just sit back and enjoy the pleasures of inspired acting. You can tell, often, a couple of minutes into a show how well it’s going to be pulled off, and that’s about how long it took on Tuesday to realize that this was going to be a very good ride. No worries about the flow or the casting or the quality of the acting: Whatever else Superior Donuts was going to be, it was going to be well-done.

That’s nothing to sneeze at. Theater is a literary art, like fiction-writing, but it’s also a performance art, like dance, and when the performance part is beautifully done it’s cause to celebrate. It doesn’t happen all that often, whether the script is Pericles or Plaza Suite. Portland readers are lucky to have had three good critical responses to this production that pretty much bracket the thinking on the literary aspects of the play: Alison Hallet’s disappointment in The Mercury, Ben Waterhouse’s admiring mixed bag in Willamette Week, and Marty Hughley’s mostly rave in The Oregonian.

As it happens, I’m ecumenical on the subject. I agree with all three, at least partly: Superior Donuts is a good small play that falls back on a few stock situations but is actually bigger than it seems, with nuances that take it into pretty interesting cultural territory. I have a quibble or two, but nothing important, and nothing that the critics haven’t already brought up, so no need to repeat them here.

This is a play, I suppose, that was written for me, or people my age — people who were draft age when the Vietnam War was new, and who had to deal with it, one way or another. (I was lucky. I was 4-F.) Living near the Canadian border, I knew draft dodgers and deserters. I knew a guy who went to his draft physical, crawled into a locker, and wouldn’t come out until the doctors agreed he was too nuts to serve in the Army. I heard the story, maybe urban legend, about the guy who got out by masturbating in front of the doctors at his physical. I knew kids — they were kids, still not able to vote or legally drink — who went to ‘Nam and got blown up almost before they knew they were there. I knew guys who came home drugged out and bitter and bent on slowly, or quickly, drinking or drugging themselves to death. I knew guys who drank themselves insane because they survived and their buddies didn’t, and a guy who drank himself to death because he’d spent his hitch gunning down Cambodian civilians from a helicopter on covert missions, and simply couldn’t live with it. I knew tough guys who woke up screaming in the middle of the night, reliving stuff they’d gone through. I knew guys who headed for the hills, into the wilderness, and didn’t come back. I knew a guy who, just back from his tour and still in uniform, saw me standing on a protest line and spat in my face; nearly 20 years later, at a high school reunion, he made his amends — an extraordinarily graceful act of courage. I knew guys who climbed drunk into cars and drove too fast and smashed themselves into the smithereens they’d escaped in Southeast Asia. I knew guys who bought big houses in the suburbs and built families and careers and prayed to a God they didn’t believe in anymore that the sweats and flashbacks wouldn’t come back. I knew the feeling that it was all a waste and a crime and something to never let happen again, except it did, and it’s still going, and it’s beyond stupid and beyond obscene.

So I feel as if I know Arthur Przybyszewski, Letts’ central character in Superior Donuts, the nearly catatonic guy who owns the rundown donut shop in Chicago and silently relives his days as a draft dodger in Canada and frets that he should have resisted, not just dodged, and who is sunk in the absence of hope; and suddenly I’m thinking that, even if the story of his redemption is a little formulaic, maybe this isn’t such a small play, after all. Maybe it’s a big play, with big things on its mind, told in a small way. And maybe that’s all right. Because most people who lived through the war in Vietnam or the war at home or both are pretty much bruised or battered in one way or another, and while most of us have emerged sane and reasonably happy, some are dead and some are catatonic, and no matter how much we try to forget or reinvent the 1960s, we were there, and we know, and whatever else happens, we’ll carry the nub of the thing to our graves. And how Tracy Letts, who is 45 years old, which means he was 8 when the last U.S. soldiers evacuated, knows all this I’m not sure, but I’m thinking: culturally and literarily, stuff is going on in this play.

Oh: And it’s a comedy. And it’s about the revival of hope — The Winter’s Tale for moderns. One way comedy works is to plug into familiar formulas and give them a little twist. Letts does that not just with language — there are some great one-liners in Superior Donuts — but also with the way he plays with big-city ethnic differences: the Poles, the Russians, the African Americans, the Irish. And it’s surely no accident that in his fable about creating a truly democratic neighborhood culture (no, the hopefulness of the 1960s hasn’t been entirely squashed or mortgaged to Bank of America) he creates a love interest between the old draft dodger and the lady cop. In Chicago, of all places, where the spectre of Richard Daley and the 1968 Democratic convention still hovers. I have a feeling Letts is familiar with Division Street, the 1980 comedy by the Serbian-American writer Steve Tesich (an Academy Award winner for his screenplay to Breaking Away), which is also set in Chicago, also rooted in the radical ’60s, and also about a rainbow coalition of sorts.

But we were talking about Letts as a writer who knows how to write for actors. And that’s the skill that brings all of this together and makes it take off.  Add terrific casting and a director, Allen Nause, who’s an actors’ director, and you’ve got pretty much the whole package.

Actors who become playwrights innately understand things that don’t necessarily come automatically to other writers — how to move from scene to scene, for instance, and how to make sure that entrances and exits are technically manageable. But more than that, actor/writers understand the psychology of the stage and the emotional needs of actors. And in that sense, Letts is exceptional. In a nine-cast show, every role except one — the stereotypical muscle (Paul Glazier) for a small-time bookie — offers the reward of at least one of those “moments” that actors cherish: the little spotlight when it’s their turn to shine. This can come even in the smallest of roles. Matthew D. Pavik, for instance, who plays the almost speechless new Russian immigrant Kiril, has an extraordinarily touching small scene of sympathy with the bag lady (Vana O’Brien), a scene that makes both roles worth playing and is carried out by both with exceptional skill. Pierre Broulator isn’t just a bookie with a score to settle. He’s a bookie with a bad stomach, and a bookie who genuinely likes the guy he feels forced to rough up. Victor Mack, Linda Alper and Michael Mendelson, in bigger supporting roles as (respectively) a Trekkie black cop, Arthur’s lady-cop love interest, and the donut shop’s effusive Russian-immigrant neighbor, also bring the pleasures of professionalism: everyone on this stage pays attention to that vital space between performers, the invisible connection that is the heart of good ensemble acting. Credit that to Nause and the actors, but credit Letts, too: he knew how to create the structure to let that magic exist.

There are many lovely small moments in this show, from O’Brien’s fragile stoicism when discussing her children to the softening of Alper’s face when Arthur finally has the guts to let her know he’s interested. And there are two riveting performances: Vin Shambry’s featured turn as Franco, the fast-talking black kid who comes to work at the donut shop and wakens Arthur’s frozen engagement with life; and Bill Geisslinger’s extraordinary lead performance as Arthur, the self-exiled has-been. Shambry is the electrical current that lights up this run-down place: nervy and prodding and energetic and funny and almost hopelessly optimistic. His performance is showy and warmly entertaining, but what struck me most sharply and piercingly was his long defeated silence near the end of the play, at what is supposed to be a celebration. He just sits there and stares, angry and humiliated and broken, and you know that if something doesn’t change he’s going to be Arthur all over again.

Ah, Arthur. After seeing this production, it’s hard to think of anyone other than Geisslinger in the role. Geisslinger has long been an actors’ actor, a core player at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (where he’ll be in the cast of Letts’s August: Osage County later this spring), and in Superior Donuts he brings all of his accumulated skills to bear. It’s a difficult role, playing a guy who is quiet and rude and disengaged and wrapped up in passive-aggressive anger, but who is also, somewhere, still idealistic and moral and warm. A guy, long past it, who’s still got a little game. Geisslinger isn’t afraid to make Arthur ugly, but somehow he makes you understand that the ugliness is a defense. And when he warms up — when he actually engages with O’Brien or Alper or Shambry — his creased face lightens and becomes beautiful. It’s a grand engine of optimism, sloughing off the rust of many idle years and sputtering to life again. The past becomes present, and the present becomes a possibility. Wish fulfillment, maybe. Good theater, absolutely.


Bill Geisslinger and Vin Shambry in “Superior Donuts” at Artists Rep. Photo: Owen Carey.