The shop in Chicago’s gritty, multi-ethnic Uptown neighborhood is the kind of place where everyone from beat cops to homeless locals comes for coffee and community. But as Tracy Letts’s “Superior Donuts’’ begins, a vandal has struck, smashing the glass door and spray-painting a vulgar insult on the wall.
The play, which begins performances Jan. 6 at Lyric Stage Company of Boston, is Pulitzer Prize winner Letts’s follow-up to his 2007 Broadway hit, “August: Osage County.’’ Will LeBow plays shop owner Arthur Przybyszewski, and Omar Robinson plays Franco Wicks, a neighborhood kid who shows up looking for work and changes Arthur’s life, not entirely in the ways he intends. Lyric Stage producing artistic director Spiro Veloudos directs.
Arthur is white, Franco is black, but that’s just one of the differences between them and probably not the most important. At 59, still wearing the ponytail he adopted in his 1970s youth, Arthur is alone, stuck, and tending wounds from the ancient past, when he earned his father’s disdain by dodging the draft. Franco is 21, willfully optimistic, a talented writer trying to rescue himself from dire financial straits.
Sitting at one of the doughnut-shop tables on the Lyric set just before Christmas, gravelly-voiced Boston theater veteran LeBow, 62, and the upbeat Robinson, 28, look and sound as if they’re already in character, except a little better dressed.
“I had the beard for a couple other things I’m doing,’’ LeBow says. “I’m trying to grow my hair into a ponytail because the play asks for it, but I think I may need extensions.’’
This draws a cackle from his cast mate, but both say they’ve seldom felt as close to characters they’ve played.
“I identify with Arthur a lot,’’ LeBow says. “A lot, a lot. We have similar history in terms of Army service. I didn’t flee to Canada, but I went to Canada and set up an apartment . . . but the draft ended before my college deferment.’’
“Franco is not a huge jump for me,’’ Robinson says, noting that the play’s a change from the Shakespeare he’s been doing lately, including “Twelfth Night’’ with the Actors’ Shakespeare Project. “I’m from Baltimore originally, from a single-parent household like the character, so I had a lot of things I could relate to from that, growing up in a major city. I’m not as smart as Franco, I’d argue.’’
“Big man to admit something like that,’’ LeBow says, deadpan, sounding like Arthur.
“I’m bright, but he’s brilliant,’’ Robinson amends, trying not to laugh. “So it’s going to be fun and a challenge. I feel like, when I was 21, I had that kind of energy. I’m sure it’s latent in me somewhere.’’
“I think this play is the type of acting that really turns me on,’’ LeBow says. “Its characters are dealing with adjusting their lives, trying to continue living, dealing with the stuff that’s driving them in a certain direction. Arthur is dealing with the death of his father. For a lot of us guys, [the challenge is] getting the relationship with our father in a manageable place, so we can grow as people. . . . And I think it’s been haunting him and driving him in a not so healthy way for 40 years. I kind of consider [people like Arthur] dead. They’re not growing; they’re just existing day to day. And the action of the play brings him back to life.’’
Veloudos says he and LeBow have known each other since both were in the Boston Shakespeare Company “back in the Dark Ages’’ of the 1970s. LeBow spent 17 seasons with the American Repertory Theater, until a few years ago, when artistic director Diane Paulus arrived and moved away from the use of a resident acting company. Now working widely in Boston and elsewhere, LeBow is making his Lyric Stage debut in “Superior Donuts.’’
“I have always admired Will as an actor and a person of theater,’’ Veloudos says. “Omar was suggested to me by another actor I was working with. I’d had some difficulty finding a really good actor of color to play that particular role. And when Omar came in, he had both a real innocence and yet he could come up with a nice street quality, and I thought that was absolutely necessary for the role of Franco.’’
The play also reunites LeBow with another former ART regular, Karen MacDonald, who plays a cop with a soft spot for Arthur.
“We’ve been each other’s love interest or spouses, we think it’s like 13 or 14 times,’’ LeBow says. “We’ve been married maybe seven or eight times, but not once was it a good marriage in any of those plays.’’
MacDonald is making her Lyric Stage debut, too. Was working with such veteran Boston talents intimidating for Robinson?
“I’ve got to say, being an excited young actor working with people like Will and Karen, I had my half-second of being star-struck, but I’ve totally gotten over it,’’ Robinson says.
“I get a half-second of glorification, Jesus,’’ LeBow says with feigned disgust.
“OK, you got three,’’ Robinson says, knowing full well that three seconds isn’t going to be enough, either. But then he turns serious again: “Working with people you’ve watched onstage and admired - and it’s happened to me a bunch this year - it’s just a dream.’’
‘Vanya’ is extended
With several of its shows sold out before last night’s opening, the Apollinaire Theatre Company has added four performances to its run of “Uncle Vanya,’’ starring John Kuntz, at the Chelsea Theatre Works: Jan. 19-21 at 8 p.m. and Jan. 22 at 3 p.m. Each of the play’s four acts will be staged in a different space at the theater, and audiences are limited to 30 people per performance. Tickets, $30, at 617-887-2336 or www.apollinairetheatre.com.