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Pulitzer Winner Letts' Dark Comedy

Superior Donuts
Written by Tracy LettsMichael McKean in Superior Donuts
Directed by Tina Landau
Starring Michael McKean, Jon Michael Hill, Robert Maffia, Cliff Chamberlain, Kate Buddeke, Yasen Peyankov

There’s a whiff of television in Tracy Letts' dark comedy about a '60s radical coming to terms with his life and a society that continues to have an underclass. The story is intriguing if a bit formulaic. It's as if Letts said, "Well, we need a middle-aged white ex-hippie with a pony tail, a brash young black man, a couple of cops of mixed colors and genders and some bad guys to prevent the story from cloying too much." That said, there is some charm in what he came up with, even if it’s not great drama. Landau directs at an agile pace that highlights the laughs.

Arthur Przybyszewski (McKean) runs a shabby donut shop in a black section of Chicago. In the sixties, he was an activist and in 1968 was beaten by Daley’s police. That would be at the Democratic Convention when protesters marched down the lakefront Michigan Avenue and shouted "The whole world is watching." (I was there, too.) He went to Toronto to escape the draft.

His father, a Polish immigrant, died while Arthur was in Canada, and he returned home to run the shop. His life hasn’t turned out very well. His wife left him, and he hasn’t seen his daughter in years. He is a loner who lives in the past and doesn’t connect with anyone. McKean does a persuasive turn as the laid-back Arthur who still wears the T-shirts of the bands of his era.

Business in the donut shop is bad, and to add to it, when Arthur opens up that morning, the door is smashed and "pussy" is scrawled on the mirror. He hardly seems to care.

Later that day, in walks Franco Wicks (Hill), a young black man who needs a job. Hill is lively and engaging in the role. He persuades Arthur to hire him as an all-around helper and also sets about offering some good advice. Arthur is missing the evening trade, he needs to fix the place up. It’s seedy, with a Formica counter and metal stools with red plastic seats. (The set is by James Schuette.) He needs music, and "How’s about poetry reading. I’ll produce a coffee house." Arthur acknowledges the competition of a new Starbucks, and Franco quips, "They’ve got Starbucks in wheat fields."

Franco also tells him to improve his appearance: "Let me tell you who looks good in a ponytail, girls and ponies." And he suggests he pay more attention to the lady cop (Buddeke), who finds all kinds of reasons to stop by the shop.

The young man seems to be down on his luck now, but he has hopes for the future. He is writing the Great American Novel called America Will Be, after Langston Hughes’ poem. He wants Arthur to read it. Letts needs to give Arthur someone to care about, and that could be Franco.

Till now it’s pretty light stuff and could be any family TV story. It gets darker when a couple of mobsters (Maffia and Chamberlain) come around to collect on a debt. Seems Franco had been a runner for gamblers and had fallen into the vice himself. Meanwhile, Max Tarasov (Peyankov), a Russian who owns the DVD shop next door, wants to buy Arthur out. Eventually, all the pieces fit together. I could have done without the gratuitous brutality and a rather corny dénouement.

But the plot does grab your attention, as any good TV drama might, and there is some clever, funny dialogue and good acting by all, especially McKean as Arthur, Hill as Franco, Buddeke as a cop, Peyankov as the Russian store owner and Michael Garvey as his nephew, Kiril.

For tiimes and ticket details go to:

Superior Donuts
Music Box Theatre
239 West 45th Street
New York City
Opened October 1, 2009; closes January 3, 2010

For more by Lucy Komisar:

Photo credit: Robert J. Saferstein

Dave Matthews Band IS "Larger Than Life in 3D"

Hannah Montana and U2, who have had their own 3-D concert films, may be hard acts to follow, but this engaging mix of three diverse concert draws tries hard to have something for everyone. Running a one-week engagement, from December 11 to 17, 2009, the generically titled Larger Than Life in 3D weaves together acts from three recent summer concerts – New York City gypsy-punks Gogol Bordello at the All Points West Music & Arts Festival in New Jersey, California pop-fusion performer Ben Harper and his band Relentless7 at the Mile High Music Festival in Denver, Colo., and the peripatetic pop star Dave Matthews and his group at the Austin City Limits Music Festival in Texas.

Using a trio of acts with such distinct styles and sounds but who complement each other seems a savvy way to reach a broader audience than just core fans – who bought tickets in troves for Hannah Montana, but didn't say yoo-hoo to U2.

It was also savvy to open with the high-energy Gogol Bordello, whose Eastern European-derived sound and manic show kick things off with aural and visual interest. After a quick couple of numbers – the band eventually coming back to play in a frame alongside  the movie's closing credits – the tempo downshifts to singer-guitarist Harper, who displays a high, virtuoso voice reminiscent of 1970s-era Steve Winwood.

Night descends during his band's set, segueing to Matthews' seven-man ensemble, which performs over a half-dozen songs – mostly Matthews' own, including "You Might Die Trying," "Shake Like a Monkey," "Why I Am" and his closer, "Ants Marching," but also the Talking Heads' "Burning Down the House." Throughout, the camera well captures his Jim Belushi-eque, admirably Everyman aura.

Projecting 3-D is inevitably tricky, given that 3-D movies nonetheless project on a two-dimensional screen, and it's not usual for the illusion of depth to vary widely within the same movie. The opening two segments sometimes appear less three-dimensional than they do like a series of 2-D planes, like in old stereopticon postcards. This multiplane effect is less pronounced in the night scenes, where there's less contrast and backlighting, though by the same token, the cinematography in the low-light Matthews segment is less vivid and "present."

In the modern, mid-Manhattan theater where I attended a public screening, the audio came solely from front speakers – authentically enough like a real concert, as far as that goes. But in a movie theater, especially when the visuals are presented in 3-D, it's a bit disconcerting not to have the same surround-sound that anyone with even a rudimentary home-theater system would have.

There's little backstage footage and no interviews, keeping the focus squarely on the songs. Judicious editing, thankfully, avoids dead spaces between songs, and the whole package, while not really emulating a concert experience, is tight and musical and could have a solid life in the home theaters of which we spoke.

For more info got to:

Larger Than Life in 3D

Directed by Luke Harrison and Lawrence Jordan
Produced by Action 3D and AEG Network Live
(Cinedigm Entertainment Group)
at various theaters nationwide

Bollywood Review: "Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year"

Directed by Shimit Amin
Written by Jaideep Sahni
Starring Ranbir Kapoor, Prem Chopra, Mukesh Bhatt, D. Santosh, Gauahar Khan, Naveen Kaushik, Manish Choudhari, Shazahn Padamsee

The smiling guy offering you a business card while a paper plane glides behind him in the posters for the Bollywood import Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year seems to promise a workplace satire or a lighthearted employee caper – Office Space goes Calcutta. Instead we get a sharply observed drama of an honest man trying to survive in the usual business world where kickbacks, petty politics, office cliques and tell-'em-anything lies to make a sale are all business as usual. In the exploding modern India, it's a very American story: How do you succeed in business without really trying to compromise your ethics?

That's the dilemma facing Harpreet Singh Bedi (Kapoor, the Strasberg-trained scion of the venerable filmmaking family), a Sikh fresh out of college with less than stellar grades. While his classmates head toward MBAs or law firms, H.P., as he's nicknamed, thinks he'll find his future in sales. His devout grandfather (Chopra), with whom he lives, is wary but supportive, going so far as to sink his life savings into a scooter for H.P. to use on his rounds.

Shortly after H.P. lands a trainee position at AYS, a major yet snakeoily computer sales and "service" company, over the objections of smarmy sales manager Nitin Rathore (Kaushik), he gets what could be his big break – making an in-person visit to a major client to finalize a done deal. But when that company's procurement guy seeks his usual bribe, H.P. naively files a complaint with that company's higher-ups – on AYS stationery, no less.

Naveen Kaushik and Ranbir KapoorTo call what happens next a descent would be to imply going south by degrees. H.P. immediately becomes a pariah of untouchable proportions, the butt of jokes, and given cold-call duty – having to turn over even whatever leads he can get that way. Pretty soon paper rockets – what we call paper airplanes – rain down on him mercilessly. In the entrenched social structures of even 21st-century India, where leaving a job that you're lucky  to have is unheard of – much like the U.S., come to think – H.P. is effectively trapped.

A chance encounter with the veteran owner of a cheap electronics stall alerts H.P. to the realities of computer pricing – and the relatively low costs of computer assembling. He recruits AYS service technician Giri (Santosh) – who in things-are-alike-all-over mode spends most of his day ogling bikini-clad blonds on his computer –  to moonlight. One thing leads to another, and he soon acquires a slew of clients who appreciate Rocket Computer's honesty and integrity –  notwithstanding the fact H.P.'s running it out of AYS' offices, unbeknownst to smiling-cobra company owner Puri (Bhagyaraj). H.P. intends to reimburse AYS for the phone and the printer ink and such. But just as he and company cohorts Koena (Khan), Chotelal (Bhatt) and even Rathore are about to resign to do Rocket fulltime, Puri discovers their now not-so-little scheme.

Not all Bollywood movies are big, colorful musicals, of course, and this one offers only a couple of plot montages set against songs. But with uniformly excellent performances – particularly by Kaushik and Bhagyaraj as the conflicted and not-so-conflicted antagonists, respectively – plus a no-nonsense pace and storytelling sense by director Shimit Amin and a truly universal set of office circumstances (check out one of the most  believable office set designs in recent memory, with ugly carpeting, boxes piled up alongside filing cabinets and fingerprints all over the phones), Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year is instantly accessible to any stateside audience. H.P. may be a prisoner of the system, but he can proudly say, "I am not a number. I am a free market."

For more by Frank Lovece:

Selected CD Reviews: Unforgettable Collections

Michael Jackson
The Definitive Collection
Universal Music Group holds the rights to the Motown Records catalog, so the term “definitive” here is a bit deceiving since it does not include any Michael Jackson recordings made after 1975. When Jackson left Berry Gordy’s company to join Epic Records, he went onto record the biggest selling album of all-time, 1983's Thriller. Of course it was at Motown that Jackson’s wondrous talent first discovered, initially singing with his brothers in the Jackson 5, then by slowly branching out to solo recordings.

Jackson’s young exuberant voice was a key reason that the Jackson Five’s first four singles (“I Want You Back,” “ABC,” “The Love You Save” and “I’ll Be There”) went to #1 on the pop charts. Sure, tales of puppy love in Top 40 songs are as old as the hills, but Jackson and his brothers made you forget that it was a pop cliche.

While nearly all of the songs here are old friends, it is fun to hear the tracks that didn’t get that much play at the time of their release or subsequent on oldies stations. You can put the lively “I Wanna Be Where You Are,” Michael’s superb take on Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine,” and “Farewell, My Summer Love,” a tune that Motown kept in their vaults until after “Thriller” came out, in that category.

It is ironic then that Universal Music Enterprises had this CD on their release schedule even before Jackson’s untimely passing last June.

Gary Lewis & The Playboys
The Complete Liberty Singles
(Collectors Choice)
Gary Lewis & The Playboys will never be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. While snooty Rolling Stone critics would scoff at even the idea of including Gary Lewis and his bandmates in the same breath of such artists as the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen and U2, this two-disc collection shows that Lewis and Company made solid contributions to pop and rock.

Yes, Lewis, the son of Jerry Lewis, never possessed a great voice. The liner notes make it clear that his producer, Snuff Garrett, had to overdub his voice numerous times on nearly every recording and that he frequently had singing assistance from an uncredited Ron Hicklin, a well-respected L.A. studio musician. Hicklin was the American equivalent of England’s Tony Burrows who seemed to sing on every British hit not made by a super group in the late 1960s and early ‘70s.

Lewis’ limited vocal abilities actually proved to be an asset as he provided an everyman’s touch to breakup songs as “This Diamond Ring,” “Sure Gonna Miss Her,” “Paint Me A Picture” and “My Heart’s Symphony,” and it made it easier for the listener to identify with him on upbeat fare as “Green Grass,” a song that trumpeted the impending arrival of spring, “Count Me In,” and “She’s Just My Style.”

What is often overlooked by rock music historians is the level of sophistication in the Playboys’ records. Garrett consistently utilized the famous “Wrecking Crew” for his studio musicians who were led by keyboardist Leon Russell, guitarist Tommy Tedesco and legendary drummer Hal Blaine. These are the same folks that Brian Wilson turned to for countless Beach Boys recording sessions. The string, brass and woodwind work on Lewis’s hits were quite sophisticated for the time and could be described as pop symphonies.

The Sweet Anthology
(Shout Factory)
A ‘70s quartet that could have been considered the British equivalent of the Grass Roots in that they made catchy hit singles but were considered lightweights by the pop cognoscenti, Sweet turned out a set of rockin' singles that made them more than just that. This 32-song collection basically confirms the general consensus that the band is a guilty pleasure.

Thanks to the work of producers Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn, songs such as “Fox On The Run,” “Ballroom Blitz” (a tune that inspired Forest Hills’ own, the Ramones), and the nonsensical ditty “Little Willy” (which sears your brain with its hooky bass line and hand claps), made Sweet memorable. “Little Willy” was a big hit in both here and the UK but it was bigger there because the term had naughty connotations that it didn’t have on this side of the Atlantic.

Thanks to lead singer Brian Connolly’s cheerful vocals, one Sweet tune that has stood the test of time and has impressed even the band’s detractors is 1978's “Love Is Like Oxygen,” a song that would not sound out of place on an Electric Light Orchestra or Queen album.

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