You’ve seen storefronts like this, usually located under the El. The interior is speckled with a layer of grim and tepid aspirations, the worn-out furnishings a sad grace note. Every time you pass by, the place looks empty save for a guy or two behind the counter. How do they stay in business, you wonder? Most don’t. That’s the broad overlay in Tracy Letts’ new melancholic comedy (at the Steppenwolf) which he has set in Chicago—the city where this recent Pulitzer-winner has lived most of his adult life, and perhaps more importantly, the city where he became a playwright. Like Brett Neveu’s recent “Gas for Less” (at the Goodman), “Superior Donuts” presents the little guy as endangered species, fighting off the encroachment of chain branding and impersonal transactions. Arthur Przybyszewski (Michael McKean) is the proprietor of said donut shop, an aging hippie so withdrawn from life that he retreats into a haze of pot smoke whenever reality punches through the glass door of his store. McKean’s performance is enigmatic—a resigned sigh that only begins to suggest Arthur’s state of mind. The role is bookended by Franco Wicks (Jon Michael Hill), the young, frenetic African-American Arthur hires as his assistant. Franco is ambitious and restless, but his inner life is just as mysterious—both he and Arthur are characters in search of meaning, and their uneasy co-existence mirrors the ethnic jostling of the neighborhood itself. (Yasen Peyankov has a terrific time as the Russian-born owner of an electronics store where he offers “the personal touch. And Croatian pornography.”) I like the way Letts parses the idea of disinterest-as-racism. The debate is false, but the spirit behind it is true. That dichotomy is everywhere in this production (directed by Tina Landau), where the dialogue rhythms don’t synch up with the real world, even if the sentiments do. You’re very much aware that you’re watching a play, and it’s only when Robert Maffia strolls onstage, playing a bookie in a cashmere coat, that things abruptly snap into place. Suddenly you’re immersed in the drama at hand. Landau’s pacing is deliberate, perhaps to a fault—the production includes a protracted stage fight that is so plainly fake in its execution that it becomes theoretical—but Letts has an ear for idioms that I really admire. “Look at you, all worked up over some female lady,” Franco tells Arthur, and it’s the kind of throw-away line you remember more than anything else. (Nina Metz)
At Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 North Halsted, (312)335-1650. Thu-Fri 7:30pm/Sat-Sun 3pm & 7:30pm/Tue-Wed 7:30pm. $20-$68. Through August 24.