The post-war generation takes us back from the studio to the kitchen. Dead ducks, rabbits and fish–especially skate–can be found there, as in the expressionist slaughterhouse, but only as part of an inventory which includes every kind of food and drink, every kind of utensil and implement, the usual plain furniture, and even the baby’s nappies on the line. Everything but the kitchen sink? The kitchen sink too. The point is that it is a very ordinary kitchen, lived in by a very ordinary family. There is nothing to hint that the man about the house is an artist or anything but a very ordinary bloke. — David Sylvester, “The Kitchen Sink”
Behind the banality of its protagonists and their settings, the true purpose of the British kitchen sink drama was to provide commentary on their social status and indirectly upon the issues of class and labor. It was always about individuals, but individuals as social beings. As this sort of drama crossed over the Atlantic Ocean, the issue of class washed away and playwrights were left with highly detailed social realism with no actual social component. American playwrights absorbed this and combined it with the already established naturalism of Arthur Miller or William Inge to create their own version of the kitchen sink. The difference was salient. American kitchen sink drama eschewed social commentary for what Paddy Chayevsky called “the drama of introspection.” This drama of introspection has given the American stage a nearly unbroken stream of banal “slice of life” stories whose strength rests solely upon their street cred as bits of penetrating human psychology.
Tracy Letts’ Superior Donuts is another in that long and tortuous stream. Here the realism of the kitchen sink is replaced by the realism of the coffee pot but the essence remains the same. The play treats banal characters in a banal setting–there is nothing to hint that the man about the shop is anything but a very ordinary bloke. True to the American form, the ordinary bloke is quite divorced from any social pretext. Instead of probing deeply into individual psychology in that “marvelous world of the ordinary” Mr. Chayevsky mentions, it relies upon types and tropes that fail to lift the story out of bathos.
The play has a slick, calculated approach that often borders on the glib. For instance: Protagonists of the kitchen sink drama of the 1950s and 1960s were often “angry young men.” But the theater audience itself has aged and no longer shows interest in angry young men. So instead we have here an “angry old man,” a fallen Baby Boomer. This is the exact same sort of navel-gazing “superfluous man” that shows up in popular American cinema dreck like Regarding Henry and to the exact same end: A yuppie regretting his life has a traumatic experience which then leads him to discover that “it’s never too late.”
In most such plots, the darkly brooding (always male, of course) character finds love through the agency of another stock character called the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, who comes into the protagonist’s life, and with endless prate and chatter and extraordinary youth and hyperactive energy magically changes the course of the protagonist’s life and turns his frown upside down. If the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is half the age of the brooding male or more, so much the better.
In Superior Donuts, the character is almost one-third of the protagonist’s age. But instead of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, we have perhaps the very first appearance of what I predict to become another stock character in theater: the Manic Pixie Dream Negro, the young, hip, naive, talkative, always game, always jive Black character who appears almost like a messenger of God, come to drop divine wisdom on you stuffy ol’ white folks, yo. The Manic Pixie Dream Negro will be there for you when you are down to teach you how to dress, how to wear your hair, how to live your dreams, and show you how to write the Great American Novel in the meantime. Without the Manic Pixie Dream Negro’s assistance and savoir-vivre the angry old man cannot even act on the most obvious signs. And to complete the trope, when the Manic Pixie Dream Negro gets himself in a scuffle and loses his Great American Novel and the ability to rewrite it, the angry old man does not inspire him in return to follow his dream anyway. Oh no: they sit down and re-write the lost Great American Novel together. The scene is wholesome, so wholesome it is actually emetic, and something that can probably only be fully enjoyed by the White liberaloisie, a group to which I do not belong.
I might complain about the coffee pot drama on display here for showing no real social awareness of race or class. In truth I would not. Anyone who has seen Mr. Letts’ adaptation of Chekhov’s Three Sisters knows that such a thing is completely beyond his ability. Superior Donuts confirms that observation. I am not expecting social commentary. What I do expect is a certain amount of psychological depth. There is some here. Much of the play is psychologically sound. But it is also largely uninteresting. The fundamental banality of the story does not help, because it does not reflect the characters’ social environment. It is simply a mundane setting. The question which always arises when dealing with the mundane is the question Richard Brautigan asks in his “Haiku Ambulance”:
A piece of green pepper
off the wooden salad bowl:
Regardless of how well-laid the plot and how well-delineated the psychology, I have to ask myself ultimately “Do I really care?” and frankly I do not. The addition of superficial action like fist fights to an essentially trite tale does not make me care more, but rather less. Superficial action belongs only in genre pieces and this is the recurrent hamartia in all Mr. Letts’ work. His plays pretend to be more than mere genre pieces but they rely fundamentally upon the clichés of genre. If one believes in rising about genre work, then the meaning of art becomes an exploration of fresh and intriguing psychologies. I defy any sensitive reader of Long Day’s Journey Into Night or Buried Child to call the neuroses on display in Superior Donuts intriguing or fresh.
Having said that, I cannot fault the production. It makes as good an argument for the play as one could ever imagine. Director Russ Banham clearly took the time actually to direct the play, which is a feature I have often found lacking in past Seattle Public Theater productions. The one moment at which his direction truly lacks–just after the fist fight–is also the one moment where the playwright truly hangs him out to dry. I commend him for finding a way to make the scene cohere at all.
The acting on display, too, is quite fine. Charles Norris walks easily on the fine line between scenery-chewing and a truthful fever pitch and it is impossible not to feel the energy he brings to the stage. Kevin McKeon holds his own, given the extraordinary amount of time he has to play possum, and has a direct and unaffected eloquence that makes me feel perhaps Arthur’s monologues make more sense than they actually do. The supporting cast, too, give the play credence, especially with the sensitivity of Sally Brady and the charm of the ever-lovely Jena Cane coming to the fore in the final denouement. I have my quibbles with the production design but certainly Craig Wollam’s set and Jay Weinland’s sound are loving and attentive.
The excellent production cannot hide that Superior Donuts is a deeply flawed play. Mr. Letts is known for his penchant for characters who spend the entire evening of theater struggling with faith or some other moral dilemma. He is obviously drawn to such stories for a reason. But he is not sufficiently capable of dramatizing such dilemmas without resorting to cheap tricks. I have not seen yet a play of his that actually resolves without superficial action or, worse, a complete deus ex machina. Superior Donuts comes closer than Killer Joe, certainly, but he has still a long way to go.
Through October 21, 2 pm and 7:30 pm // Seattle Public Theater, 7312 W Green Lake Dr N, Seattle WA 98103 // Tickets $27, Seniors $25, Youth $15