Playwright: Tracy Letts. At: Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company at the Royal George, 1641 N. Halsted St. Tickets: 312-988-9000; www.maryarrchie.com; $50. Runs through: Nov. 23
Tracy Letts' Pulitzer prize for the fourth play of his writing career saddled the author with a status mandating that his fifth premiere in palatial auditoriums boasting big budgets, despite an aesthetic that has always gravitated toward small spaces: trailers, motel rooms, artists' studioseven the mansion in August: Osage County was, dramatically speaking, merely a cluster of closets and cells. Angel Island's loft stage offered intimacy enough, but only with this Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company production's transfer to the Royal George's cozy ground-floor cabaret has it found the perfect fit for both performers and audience.
Our setting is a shabby bakery, located beneath the Wilson Avenue El station in Chicago's Uptown district, now as sorely neglected as its squalid urban environment and Arthur Przybyszewski, its scruffy third-generation owner. Oh, but resurrection is on the horizonfor the neighborhood, in the form of new businesses opening, and for Arthur, with the arrival of a catalytic young man named Franco Wicks, eager to share his big dreams. Restoration cannot commence, however, without first disposing of the detritus accumulated over a past riddled with inexorable regrets.
Letts doesn't waste words, so don't be lulled by the assortment of archetypal urban eccentrics frequenting this milieu into thinking that this will be a feel-good comedy (with a touch of Norman Lear). The seemingly frivolous banter dominating the early scenes conceals revelations figuring prominently in the grim decisions its purveyors will face later. An immigrant entrepreneur's lovesick nephew or a loan shark's sour stomach may not appear important initially, but when good and evil finally go nose-to-nose and fist-to-fist, assistance may spring from the unlikeliest of sources.
Richard Cotovsky and Preston Tate Jr. repeat their roles as the phlegmatic Arthur and mercurial Franco, as do Karl Potthoff, playing the ruthless gangster Luther Flynn, Paige Smith as the pragmatic Max Tarasov, and an ensemble generating the kind of empathy sparking real-time vocal responses from opening-week playgoers. The room at North Avenue and Halsted Street may be larger, dictating slower pacing and longer scene changes, but the warmth and intimacy of Letts' most optimistic play to date remains undiminished. Now that the election's over, why shouldn't we celebrate the humble doughnut as a symbol of the American Dream's resiliency?