HONEY DIPPED Omar Robinson and Will LeBow lead a fine cast in Tracy Letts’s Superior Donuts.
No one, to my knowledge, has accused Superior Donuts of being superior Tracy Letts. Those honors usually go to August: Osage County, Killer Joe, or Bug.
That doesn't stop the Lyric Stage Company of Boston from mounting a superior production of Donuts (through February 4), even down to having the pastries on sale at intermission. But the tasty stuff is onstage, where the American Repertory Theater's loss of Will LeBow and Karen MacDonald continues to be other theaters' gain.
LeBow plays Arthur Przybyszewski, an aging hippie who owns a donut shop in Chicago that seems to have three regular customers — two police officers and an elderly woman who gets her donuts free. Presumably there are more, though, since he is in the process of hiring an assistant. One of the officers is MacDonald, who has the hots for him, though both are so wounded — particularly Arthur — that their pursuit of each other is tortuous bordering on torturous.
MacDonald and LeBow have been down this road together before, though this isn't the relationship that lifts the Lyric show above the 2009 Steppenwolf production starring Michael McKean in New York. That would be the relationship between LeBow's Arthur and Omar Robinson's Franco Wicks, the young, smart-mouthed African-American writer who becomes his assistant.
They also — surprise — become each other's life coaches, Franco telling Arthur that the Grateful Dead aren't looking for a new guitarist, Arthur telling Franco that he needs to get serious about his writing. Equally predictable, they both get their backs up when the other probes too much into personal history.
Inevitably, there's an All in the Family element to their relationship, though Arthur is anything but a racist. He takes a sawbuck off Franco by naming 10 black poets. Letts could have written for Norman Lear easily enough. Max, the Russian proprietor of the video store next door tells Arthur why he won't lose out to the chains: "I have something Best Buy can't match — the personal touch . . . and Croatian pornography."
But it's the dynamic of Chicago at the crossroads, and the characters at their personal crossroads, that makes this better than a contemporary Archie and Meathead. Arthur has to face up to competition from Starbucks just as Max (Steven Barkhimer) prepares for Best Buy. And, of course, he has to face up to his own loneliness and loss.
Artistic director Spiro Veloudos is also a better guide than Tina Landau for Steppenwolf as far as taking Letts from the transgressiveness of earlier plays to the transcendence, or at least redemptiveness, of the new one. It's a sentimental story, to be sure, but that's not really an issue here, since Veloudos, LeBow, and Robinson in particular bathe the story in a warmth that feels genuine at every turn. LeBow can play parts like this in his sleep — and when he first enters, it looks as if he might in this one — but what draws you to his story is a bemused smile here, a resignation in his narrative asides to the audience there, and everywhere a concern for his fellow actors' stories.
Veloudos, too, can bring out the best in his actors and designers. One example is the secondary role of the bookie, Luther Flynn, a macho mobster in New York, but Christopher James Webb and Veloudos make him a more believable character, which makes Arthur a more believable foil in a scene you'll have to see for yourself.
So don't go looking for August: Osage County at the Lyric. But a superior Superior Donuts is more than empty calories.