No one can accuse Tracy Letts of repeating himself. In the years before he won every award but Miss Congeniality for the sharp-tongued 31/2-hour family melodrama "August: Osage County," the playwright was known for such edgy, outlaw miniatures as "Killer Joe" (homicidal Texas trash) and "Bug" (infestation paranoia in a seedy motel room).
In "Superior Donuts" - which opened last night at the Music Box Theatre where "August" closed its long run in June - the Chicago playwright (by way of Tulsa) has created a sentimental, safely old-fashioned, surprisingly creaky rescue-fantasy and urban soaper.
The mild and predictable seven-character play has transferred intact from Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Tina Landau's sensitively detailed naturalistic production. It also has a breakout star-making Broadway debut by Jon Michael Hill.
He plays Franco, the young black college dropout, the sort of live wire that can plug other people into the wall. Through much of the play, he cleverly pokes and goads and tries to energize his emotionally deadened boss, Arthur. Played with intelligent disillusionment by Michael McKean, Arthur is an aging Vietnam evader and reluctant second-generation owner of his dead Polish parents' rundown doughnut shop in the sort of neighborhood euphemistically described as transitional. (Yes, that means Starbucks has opened across the street.) It is that miserable time in Chicago winter when the frost on windows is dirty and hopelessness seems permanently crushed into bundled layers of tired clothing.
You know the setup. A bigoted- but-cute Russian shopkeeper wants to expand into the doughnut shop. A cranky-but-cute (and deeply wise) old homeless woman comes daily for free food. Two tough-but-cute cops (one a lonely-but-spunky single woman with a do-it-herself hair dye the color of dried blood) regularly drop in to investigate minor vandalism and to check up on Arthur, who isn't showing up every day anymore.
Every so often, Letts puts Arthur into a trance-like state, through which he delivers poignant internal monologues that fill in social and personal reasons for his inertia. There is nothing cute about them, which makes us wish we knew him better.
What "Superior Donuts"
Where Music Box Theatre, 239 W. 45th St.
Info $76.50-$116.50; 212-239-6200; steppenwolf.org
Bottom line Soft at the center.