Stage Door: Superior Donuts, The Understudy, Vamps

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When August: Osage County, an astounding large-scale familial drama burst on Broadway, it trumpeted the arrival of Tracy Letts, who won the Pulitzer Prize. By contrast, his follow-up effort, Superior Donuts, is a quiet meditation on fathers and sons, hope and hopelessness. This round, Letts went smaller, more intimate. Though Donuts is expertly acted and genuinely touching, the plot is far more contrived.

Now at the Music Box, Superior Donuts opens in a family-owned Chicago donut shop. The seedy neighborhood is quietly becoming gentrified, as evidenced by the nearby Starbucks. The shops owner, a tired hippie named Arthur (Michael McKean), is a study in resignation. A former draft dodger and son of Polish immigrants, his "old man" started the store, hoping his son would do better. Instead, Arthur fled the U.S. during the Vietnam War, and by the time he returns, his father and his dreams, are dead.

When the play opens, Arthur's been the victim of a break-in, investigated by two beat cops (Kate Buddeke and James Vincent Meredith) and his neighbor Max, a brusque Russian (Yasen Peyankov) who offers to buy the dilapidated donut shop to expand his DVD business. So far, so good: the drama has the Letts touch: pain laced with humor. Then Franco (John Michael Hill) appears -- an eager, brash, somewhat endearing African American kid with little money but big hopes. He wants to transform Arthur's store -- poetry readings, healthier food -- and Arthur himself: "Let me tell you who looks good in a ponytail: Girls and ponies."

Franco, like Arthur, has his disappointments, but in almost sitcom fashion, refuses to give up, announcing his intention to write the great American novel. Together, these fatherless men forge a relationship. Here, disparate souls, like the beat cop with a crush on Arthur, and Max, long for connection. All, save Franco, are leading what T. S. Eliot called "lives of quiet desperation." But the play, which has many pluses, goes a bit off-course with an iffy subplot that over-reaches. Still, Letts is an insightful writer, sensitive to the bathos behind the bluster. And for his debut, Hill has proven an actor of real note, in-tune with McKean's understated despair. There are many moving moments here, but the dough never quite rises.

A lighter tone is taken in The Understudy, now at the Laura Pels. This three-character comedy is both a wry love letter to the theater and a reminder that, as Harry (Justin Kirk) says: "It's an incoherent choice to be an actor." Playwright Theresa Rebeck, last represented on Broadway with Mauritius, gets in some good shots at celebrities who headline Broadway shows, the bitter rivalry between theater actors and film stars and the zaniness of a stage manager's life.

"You have no rights, you're an actor!" the enraged stage manager Roxanne (Julie White) hurls at Harry, the understudy for a Broadway production of an undiscovered Kafka play. Harry, her ex-fiancé who inexplicably left her six years earlier, gets in a hilarious jab at action movies and their overpaid, "talent-free" stars by screaming a line from a recent blockbuster: "Get in the truck!"

His target is action star Jake (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) the Hollywood hunk who has the role the highbrow Harry covets. Not only does Rebeck supply a backstage farce about theater, but she manages to create a "Kafka" play that sends up The Trial, The Castle and every known Kafka reference, no small feat. Just watching the scenery move is good for a few laughs.

But the real fun is watching the three performers who turn a competitive rehearsal -- with Roxanne racing through the audience barking stage directions -- into an opportunity to explore emotional disappointments -- personal and professional. The zippy Understudy, in which director Scott Ellis keeps the action moving, is an entertaining backstage romp.

She's new on the cabaret scene, but Nicole Kafka's doctor-by-day, singer-at-night routine is getting traction. Her latest show, Vamps, Vixens & Villains, at Don't Tell Mama Nov. 11, 13-14, proves naughty can be nice. Kafka pays homage to the classics, but throws the net wide for her bad-girl repertoire, everything from "Cruella De Vil" to "The Saga of Jenny" to "Whatever Lola Wants." Like many singers, she weaves her own life, in this case, an Upper East Side Harvard grad, into the musical mix. As Kafka explores good versus bad, she discovers bad is good; for women, breaking rules -- and hearts -- can be liberating. The enjoyable Vamps is backed by David Shenton on piano, Rodolph Vernaz-Colas on guitar, Stan Killian on sax and clarinet and Mark Wade on bass.