Updates: Steppenwolf’s “Superior Donuts” on Broadway

Tracy Letts’ most recent play, Superior Donuts, just opened on Broadway with the same Steppenwolf cast.  After receiving moderate to warm reviews here in Chicago, the NYC reviews so far appear mixed.

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times


The NY Post gives Superior Donuts a very positive review – 3.5 stars:

After Superior Donuts, Tracy Letts‘ follow-up to August: Osage County, premiered in Chicago last year, the play was deemed entertaining but minor.

Either this Steppenwolf production has been drastically reworked on its way to New York, or we live in a cynical world where a show as tender and honest, as beautifully written, acted and directed as this one can be blithely dismissed.



While the New York Times produces a review that is so-so:

Mr. Letts has mothballed his angst and tossed the deadly weapons in the back drawer. Superior Donuts, a gentle comedy that unfolds like an extended episode of a 1970s sitcom, is a warm bath of a play that will leave Broadway audiences with satisfied smiles rather than rattled nerves.

Superior Donuts may be familiar and unchallenging, but it’s also comfortable — and no, there’s nothing wrong with that.


Below, Chicago Tribune theater critic Chris Jones interviews playwright Tracy Letts (“August: Osage County“) and lead actor Michael McKean (“Laverne and Shirley“, “Saturday Night Live“, “This is Spinal Tap“) about Superior Donuts, Letts’ new play premiered at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater. Letts’ 2007 play August: Osage County won the Pultizer Prize and Tony Award in 2008.

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Review: Steppenwolf Theatre’s ‘Up’

To dream or to be responsible…

Up-1Ensemble member Ian Barford and Tony Hernandez in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Up by Bridget Carpenter, directed by ensemble member Anna D. Shapiro.  Photo by Michael Brosilow.


By Bridget Carpenter
Directed by Anne D. Shapiro
Runs through August 23rd
Steppenwolf Theatre

Review by Timothy McGuire

We all struggle between our desire to chase after our dreams and personal aspirations, and the responsibilities we have to take care of our finances and personal relationships. Bridget Carpenter’s “Up” now playing at Steppenwolf Theatre follows the balancing act of a middle aged man with no specific conventional goals as he tries to turn his dreams into reality and support his family in the middle of a tough economic climate. Along with the “dream chaser,” Up follows an average middle-class family proudly in love with the unconventional passions of their husband/father, but questioning the practicality of such a lifestyle as they mature and their financial security is at stake.

Ensemble member Ian Barford and Lauren Katz in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Up by Bridget Carpenter, directed by ensemble member Anna D. Shapiro.  Photo by Michael Brosilow. Walter Griffin is thoughtfully played by Ian Barford. In Walter’s youth he once achieved “stardom” when he attached 45 helium balloons to a lawn chair and took flight solo, 16,000 feet in the air. Years later Walter is still chasing after those dreams of greatness and that sense of freedom. Now married and with a teenage son, Walter spends his time brainstorming and trying to think of his next big idea while his wife provides for the family by working as a mail carrier.

IanBarford-JakecohenIn their youth Walter’s Wife Helen (Lauren Katz) fell in love with Walter due to his adventurist heart and his relentless pursuit for greatness. Their son Mikey (Jake Cohen) idolizes his father’s passion for the joys in life and his courage to pursue an unconventional lifestyle. They have always understood and respected their husband/father but when Helen’s hours get cut at the post office and Mikey meets a new friend that opens his eyes to the necessity of being able to financially provide, their patience with Walter wears thin.

With the daily stresses of bills and constantly having to be the rational mind in the family Helen asks Walter to get a job. Once smitten with the dream chaser inside her husband she now finds herself desiring the stability of a conventional man and pleads for just one day to relax and not have to worry. Helen speaks about her imaginary husband, which represents the change in her feelings towards the man that Walter is. In a flashback you hear Helen refer to her imaginary boyfriend as boring, being someone that is not as stimulating as the actual man she is with. Now married, she refers to her imaginary husband as a provider and a man that supports and takes care of his wife’s needs. Her imaginary husband represents the characteristics that Walter does not posses, but now she wishes he did.

Rachel-Brosnahan-Jake-Cohan Starting his sophomore year of high school Mikey meets a talkative pregnant classmate Maria (Rachel Brosnahan) who thoroughly makes an effort to get to know him through direct questions and honest interest. Rachel Brosnahan gives a wonderful performance of a non-stop curious teenage girl, to the point of driving you crazy as a teenage girl can do. As his relationship with Maria grows, Mikey recognizes the responsibilities that he would have to take on if he was to love her. Loosing faith in his father’s ethos of finding happiness outside of the “establishment,” Mikey wants to make plans to earn money and the stability that a 9-5 job can provide. Secret from his family, he takes on employment from Maria’s fiercely independent Aunt (Martha Lavey) and he finds a means to be a provider with his successful sales skills.

Lauren-Katz-Rachel-Brosnahan Eventually, to appease his wife and take care of his responsibilities as a father, Water accepts conventionality with a new job, and you can see his spirit breaking as he appears somber dressed in a suit and tie. Months later Walter appears up-beat and content with his new employment when he is on stage with Helen, but he demonstrates the overwhelming sense of defeat and depression when alone. His actions are peculiar for a hard working man, he still privately holds to his personal values and spits in the face of conventionality by burning and tearing-up his own money.

MarthaLavey-JakeCohen How does this family move forward as one when they all desire to walk in different paths? Can their love for one another overcome their differences in values?

Bridget Carpenter has written a creative story that captures the details of an average American family and brings to stage the struggles that occur as the demands of family life take precedent over one’s individual dreams and what to do when your life partner does not choose the same path as yourself as you mature. Each character’s situation in the play and their personality are used to explore the different viewpoints, and the direction that they desire to go.

tony-hernandez-tightropewalker The director, Anna D. Shapiro, does a fantastic job as usual taking the time to develop each character and constructing a performance that uses the details in the dialogue and the ability of the actors to capture the emotional states of their characters to build the turmoil this family is going through.

The end of the play might leave you a little lost as to what just happened to Walter, although the symbolism of the French tight-rope walker Philippe Petit (Tony Hernandez) being incorporated in the final scene points the audience in the direction of what is taking place on stage.

Rating: «««

Where: Steppenwolf Theatre
1650 N. Halsted, 312-335-1650
Through: August 23rd
Ticket Prices: $20-$70
For tickets and info: http://www.steppenwolf.org

A scene from Up featuring ensemble member Ian Barford with Lauren Katz

A select scene from Up featuring ensemble member Ian Barford with Tony Hernandez.


After the fold: Info regarding Steppenwolf’s Up, including all creators and personnel involved with the production, can be found after the jump (click on “read more”). Also an informative video featuring playwright Bridget Carpenter, explaining her inspirations for Up.

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Review – “Cadillac” at Chicago Dramatists

Craig Spidle and Ian Forester as used car salesmen arguing over a commissionProduction: Cadillac

Producers: Chicago Dramatists 

Review: In the world-premier of Bill Jepsen’s Cadillac, we are presented with a quandary: How does one keep true to his principles and values while employed in a profession where deception and manipulation are an industry standard – in this case, a used car lot? Attach to this a changing of the guard if you will – where car sales are beginning to be initiated on the internet rather than through the usual schmoozing with the walk-in customers. The play takes place almost entirely in the office of the business manager, Howard Austin (adeptly played by Craig Spidle). It is the end of the month, when final sales are totaled, and commissions are tallied. Only one more car, and the cocky upstart Gary (Ian Forester), will have tied the all-time sales record of rosy-eyed old-timer Art (Rob Riley), and receive a huge bonus. And if the lone female salesman, Robin (Kathy Logelin), does not meet her quota (only one more car), she will lose her job. In the middle of all this is a long-time customer, newly-retired Fred (Gene Cordon), who shows up to finally follow through with his life-long dream – owning a Cadillac (unfortunately his credit record does not want to cooperate with this wish).

Edward Sobel’s directing talents are on full display here, especially in the work’s best scene, a sort of “phone fugue” – all of the dealership’s employees are on their respective phones, talking at once. This scene is so remarkable in that playwright Bill Jepsen has melded 4 different simultaneous conversations in such a way that many pertinent aspects of the different characters are revealed. Jepsen has a talent in creating believable and approachable characters – even though we may find the young Gary quite caustic, we still understand him. Production-wise Cadillac looks great. Kevin Depinet’s set is well-adapted for the small space, using windows in the back of the office to allow us to see into other parts of the dealership. Keith Parham’s lighting is rightfully unobtrusive.

Summary: Cadillac is a very solid piece of theatre – one of the most satisfying new works I’ve seen in quite a while. The ending of the play shares a similarity with HBO’s Sopranos finale in that – though many questions are left unanswered – we’re still content. I’m guessing that we’ll be seeing Cadillac appearing on many a regional theatre’s future seasons. Recommended.

Rating: «««½

Personnel and Show Information
Playwright: Bill Jepsen
Director: Edward Sobel
Sets: Kevin Depinet
Lights: Keith Parham
Costumes: Debbie Baer
Sound Design: Miles Polaski
Props: Daniel Pellant
Stage Manage: Tom Hagglund
Featuring: Gene Cordon (Fred)
Craig Spidle (Howard)
Kathy Logelin (Robin)
Rob Riley (Art)
Ian Forester (Gary)
Steve Ratcliff (James)
Laurie Larson (Ellen)
Location: Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Ave. (map )
Dates: Through February 24th
Show Times: Thursday-Saturday, 8pm. Sunday matinee, 3pm
Craig Spidle closes the deal on a used car sale with customers Laurie Larson and Steve Ratcliff
Craig Spidle, Kathy Logelin, and Rob Riley as used car salesmen gearing up for the last sales day of the month
Craig Spidle and Ian Forester as used car salesmen arguing over a commission
Kathy Logelin and Ian Forester (on floor) as used car salespersons having a tough time
Craig Spidle as Howard, the best used car salesman in town