CF Interview: Playwright Tracy Letts and the “Superior Donuts” Cast

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Superior DonutsWed., Sept. 16 marked the first preview of the Broadway transfer of Tracy Letts’ new play, Superior Donuts. As part of the let’s-drum-up-interest strategy of the play’s producers (primarily Jeffrey Richards, arguably the most innovative Broadway producer currently on the boards), a flotilla of theater bloggers were invited on Sept. 9 to join an exclusive meet-and-greet with the cast, which is headed by Michael McKean, director Tina Landau and the playwright.

The following are excerpts from my conversation with many of the Superior Donuts makers.

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Jon Michael Hill, in the role of Franco Wicks
How has the play changed since the Chicago run? Have you changed along with it?
It’s changed in that Tracy’s got a keen eye for things that he can make better, so we’ve had a significant amount of new stuff. It will be a signficantly different play for people.

Do you think you had something to do with that-did you ever say “Tracy, there’s this line…” or “Hey, there’s this scene…”?
We all voice our opinions about things — no joke, by the way. It really is a collaboration and Tracy does take things into consideration. He also knows when not to listen to us.

Do you read reviews-and if you do, when do you read them?
Sometimes. A lot of times people just sort of give them to you or they send them to you. One thing Steppenwolf does is give you a press packet of all the reviews they can find. I haven’t looked through it yet, though.

They don’t block out certain lines like CIA documents?
Ha! — no. They give you all the good stuff and the terrible stuff, too.

Jon Michael Hill FinalI read Superior Donuts through another circumstance, and I just wonder, given the play’s nature, if there were any scenes or moments that made you uncomfortable or where you questioned where the play was going.
When you’re trying to be in the scene and in character, it can get scary, so yes. Anything can happen, so there’s always moment when you’re like, Ok, something can turn here. In the end, though, it’s not about your comfort. The more uncomfortable you are, I think the more the audience is going to get out of it.

Where did you grow up?
Waukegan, Illinois.

That’s where Jack Benny was raised.
I think so. Ray Bradbury was born there, too, I think.

That’s maybe the only time the names Jack Benny and Ray Bradbury are being mentioned in the same sentence below 96th Street all week.
I know!

Can you talk about your director, Tina Landau, and her process?
She’s the ultimate collaborator.

She’ll hire you again for saying that.
But she is. She has an idea of what the world is and really thinks about the senses. She’ll bring in collages, so you’ve got these magazine pictures and these news articles to see what she’s looking at. She’s basically the actor’s best friend.

Jane Alderman, playing Lady Boyle, and James Vincent Meredith, playing Officer James Hailey
So tell us who you are and who you’re playing.
James
: I’m playing Office James Hailey. Together with Kate Buddeke, we’re cops investigating a break-in at the donut shop of Arthur Przybyszewski, played by Michael McKean. We’re frequenters of this shop, but oddly, I actually don’t know if a donut is eaten by my character.

Jane: And I play Lady Boyle. I’m an alky who eats donuts in the shop every day.

James Vincent Meredith and Jane Alderman FinalHow have you been researching your role?
Jane
: Oh, I haven’t. (holds up glass) Ok, I am right now.

How were you both cast?
James
: I’m a Steppenwolf ensemble member. I wasn’t even sure until the last bit of time I was being cast. I’d heard about the play through the grapevine, but sometimes you hear stuff and you kind of don’t know what to put stock in. So when Steppenwolf asked if I’d like to do this play…”of course!

Jane: I auditioned like everybody else — all the old ladies of Chicago and me. I did know Tracy, so of course I auditioned, but he hadn’t written the whole play — he’d written this scenes that’s no longer in the play. It made sense to me even though I didn’t know what the play was about — this little nugget.

What are your expectations of Broadway?
James
: It’s an honor just to represent Steppenwolf. My hope is people will realize this is a play that lives within its own world, like August: Osage County, like Bug, like The Man From Nebraska. Superior Donuts will undoubtedly be compared to August but I hope it will also be looked at for what it is.

Jane: And maybe start to look at Tracy’s other work, because it’s all so different.

What are the differences, if any, between Chicago and New York theater in terms of the business and the audiences?
Jane
: I don’t know; I’ve never done New York before. All I’ve ever known has been this Chicago community, where I used to be a casting director for many years, and it’s always so supportive and loving, and not about anything other than doing the work. Usually runs are six weeks there, so if you get stinky reviews, you say “That was stinky” and move on. I think our situation is that we’ve come together in this little family; it doesn’t matter how audience perceive the play, although I think they’ll be in shock and love it.

James: Or in shock, anyway.

Kate Buddeke, playing Officer Randy Osteen, and Robert Maffia, playing Luther Flynn
How’d you get cast in the play?
Kate
: On the phone.

Robert: I was living in LA when I got this job.

And you weren’t so devoted to LA that you couldn’t say no?
Robert
: Aw, come on! I was devoted to doing a great play. I’ve known Tracy for a number of years.

Kate: Also, in all seriousness, Tracy has definite ideas about who he sees as characters.

Some of your fellow cast member have been talking about the play’s rewrites. Does that ever keep you off-kilter?

Kate: Meaning?

Well, you’re in a groove, or there’s a scene or a moment where you’re discovering stuff and feeling secure about it and one day you find out it’s gone, or it’s being tinkered with. I understand the roll-with-it thing, but you’re actors: Don’t you crave some security in the work you’re doing?
Kate
: As in most ensemble theater, there’s always discussion. You can always discuss it and try it and if something works, okay, so it works. Sometimes it throws you off but you can still talk about it.

Robert: Security in consistency there is, yes. But sometimes when change happens it also changes the energy of a moment and can really open you up all over again. I’ve worked in film and TV and workshops where stuff is thrown at you right in the moment. So you shoot a few takes, so it’s not the same organic process for an actor, but there’s no security in it, either.

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What can New York theater learn from Chicago theater?

Kate: Collaboration. Chicago works like a hurricane: the director is the eye. New York is like a hierarchy: the actors are at the bottom. We’re the last to know anything. We’re the last to find out who we’re working with. We’re the last to know what we’re wearing. We meet at the first day of rehearsal. Collaboration.

Michael McKeanMichael McKean, playing Arthur Przybyszewski
So here you are, back on Broadway in a new play.
I am — I played the part in Chicago with Steppenwolf. It’s also my first experience with Steppenwolf and it’s a great gig — Chicago’s a great theater town. I get the feeling very few people go to the theater just because it’s the thing to do. They go to see a play, and they don’t suffer crap, as none of us should. Superior Donuts is a play about Chicago to a certain extent, but as there’s great loneliness in the middle of every crowd, there’s great loneliness in the center of every city. I think that’s partly what Arthur Przybyszewski is.

Kudos on pronouncing that consonant-rich surname, by the way.
Hey, it’s not me, believe me: it’s on the front page of my script.


So who is Arthur?
Arthur is a man who kind of goodbye to the world at a certain point until his life and circumstances brought him back to it. When you return, you have to speak Earth, and he is not that good at it. This donut shop started the year that he was born, so it’s kind of his cradle. And when he decides maybe this is going to be his last stand, he realizes maybe it will be his coffin as well. It’s a small scope for a man to accept, but it makes sense for Arthur because he’s been out in the world and doesn’t care for it very much. It broke his heart. He did some the breaking himself. He doesn’t blame anyone else, really. He knows there were other people involved. He’s a product of his own cowardice to certain extent. We get past regret and sometimes we find redemption.

How did you find Arthur within yourself — meaning, how much of your work is divorced from yourself personally?
This character is a first-generation Polish American. I can’t say that: the first McKeans came over in 1723 and one signed the Declaration of Independence. He was last one to sign it — he was known as Thomas-I’ll-Get-Around-To-It McKean. So didn’t have the immigrant experience, but I did have the Vietnam experience, or I have sidestepping that experience. I did it by somehow blowing the first medical exam and then, by the time the next one rolled around, I’d landed a real high lottery number, but I was still red meat until 1975 when the war ended. Arthur went to Canada.

Playwright Tracy Letts
What’s the one question nobody ever asks you that you wish you would be asked?
The one question they never ask is, “Why was this play so popular in Chicago”?

And the answer is?
Because it’s so goddamn funny. That’s the answer. Because there’s a spirit of generosity about this production that has informed it from the top to the bottom from the beginning. And I think that, up until this point, we have bottled and shared it with the audience. Our audiences are so hungry to experience joy in the theater. This play supplies it.