Odd-couple comedies are the stuff of TV sitcoms. Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple” set the standard, but the best of them — Norman Lear’s “All in the Family” comes to mind — reflect a social conscience without preaching.
Tracy Letts, the Pulitzer- and Tony-winning author of the searing “August: Osage County” brings a sweeter touch to his 2009 Broadway follow-up, “Superior Donuts,” making its Long Island premiere at Bare Bones Theater’s upstairs space in Northport. The pairing of Arthur P. — he has an unpronounceable Polish name — a ’60s radical who refuses to update his hippie wardrobe and hairdo — with a 21-year-old would-be novelist inspired by Langston Hughes, might seem contrived, except that Franco needs a job for reasons that become starkly apparent when a couple of gambling goons drop in at Arthur’s place, which Franco wants to transform into a hipster coffee shop.
Arthur P. is the proprietor of the rundown doughnut dispensary in a seen-better-days Chicago neighborhood. The shop is anything but superior, particularly on this day when vandals have broken in and trashed the place, scrawling a crude reference to female anatomy on the wall.
Arthur, played by Kevin Hagan with a shrugging what’s-the-use? resignation, is paralyzed by guilt. After the cops leave, he rolls a joint and breaks into the first of a series of soliloquies. Bit by bit, we learn that Arthur’s father never forgave him for evading the Vietnam War draft. His marriage crumbled before his wife’s recent passing and he’s lost contact with their only child. But Kyle Grant, engagingly upbeat as Franco, reminds Arthur that he used to care.
Winning a bet that he could name 10 African-American poets, he’s allowed to read Franco’s Great American Novel. He’s impressed, but Arthur can’t allow himself — or anyone else — to be hopeful. His business neighbor, a bombastic Russian immigrant (Rick Peters), wants to buy Arthur’s shop so he can take over the block. Kate Madigan as a beat cop takes a shine to Arthur, while her partner (Richard Hardy) worries for good reason about Franco. Judith Anderson as an alcoholic freeloader offers disjointed tidbits of wisdom. Joseph Cavagnet and Ravi Tawney as the goons bring a jolt of violence to what was a gentle comedy.
Jeff Bennett directs with a deft touch, though the opening-night pace lagged occasionally as Hagan’s Arthur appeared to gather his thoughts. Don’t let those doughnuts go stale, Arty.