Tracy Letts isn’t exactly known for comfort food. The playwright’s 1993 drama “Killer Joe’’ is about murderous trailer-park Texans - the naked (it isn’t just souls that get bared) and the dead. “August: Osage County,’’ which won the Tony Award for best play and the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2008, serves up incest and suicide as it introduces us to another dysfunctional family, this one in Letts’s native Oklahoma.
But his latest, “Superior Donuts,’’ tries out a different recipe. Premiered in 2008 by Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company (of which Letts is a longtime member), it’s set in that city’s Uptown area, just north of Wrigley Field. The title emporium, owned by aging 1960s radical Arthur Przybyszewski (Will LeBow), is failing, but Arthur’s young assistant, Franco (Omar Robinson), thinks he can resuscitate it with healthy ingredients and poetry readings.
The play’s Broadway run lasted just 15 weeks. Now “Superior Donuts’’ is at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, and though there is indeed a dated, sitcom aspect to Letts’s script, Lyric producing artistic director Spiro Veloudos comes up with the right ingredients to make it work.
That starts with the details of Matthew Whiton’s set for the shop, where both acts of the play take place. Arthur does business behind a cheap-looking Formica countertop set with metal napkin dispensers, glass sugar dispensers, and little bowls of Sweet’N Low. One wall boasts a white telephone with phone numbers penciled in alongside; next to that are taped a pair of dollar bills - perhaps the first ones that Arthur’s Polish-immigrant father took in when he opened the shop in 1950. Another wall has a poster for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, and below that are racks filled with Chicago magazines. The cash register looks as if it might have been part of the shop’s original equipment; so do the leatherette lunch-counter stools.
All this is in disarray as the play begins: The shop has been trashed, and Max (Steven Barkhimer), who owns the DVD store next door and would like to expand into Arthur’s space, has discovered the damage. Friendly neighborhood cops Randy (Karen MacDonald) and James (De’Lon Grant) have come to investigate. Neighborhood alcoholic and philosopher Lady Boyle (Beth Gotha) has come for coffee and a doughnut. And Franco has come looking for a job.
Over the next two hours and 20 minutes, Franco will shake Arthur out of his lethargy (not to mention his faded jeans and jean jacket and Grateful Dead T-shirt) and into dating the attractive Officer Randy. Arthur will encourage Franco to find a publisher for “America Will Be,’’ his version of the Great American Novel. Racial and ethnic tensions will ebb and flow: Franco, like Officer James, is black; Max is a Russian immigrant. And the one-liners will pile up: Having challenged Arthur to name 10 black poets, Franco says waiting for him “is like watching George Bush on ‘Jeopardy.’ ’’
The proceedings take a darker turn when bookie/loan shark Luther (Christopher James Webb) appears and a $16,000 debt is revealed. Letts doesn’t really master this development; the second act, with its perplexing fistfight, sits awkwardly between comedy and tragedy, and there’s an innocence to the whole play that makes it feel more like 1992 than the present. But that might not occur to you while you’re watching the Lyric’s talented, mostly veteran cast, notably Barkhimer as a boisterous, heavily accented Max, MacDonald as a spunky Officer Randy, Grant as the “Star Trek’’-obsessed Officer James, Gotha as a wise-beyond-her-whiskey Lady Boyle, LeBow as a bedraggled, hangdog Arthur, and Robinson as the irrepressible Franco.
It may be a doughnut of a play, but this is a superior production.
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.