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Rob Weinert-KendtNovember 16, 2009

There is truth in the axiom that movies move, while plays talk. Although there are ruminative and discursive films (like “My Dinner With Andre”) and inordinately action-packed plays (like the door-slamming farce “Noises Off”), the gulf between moving pictures and dialogic theater was probably best formulated by the English actor/writer Stephen Fry, who wrote: “The perfect stage hero is Hamlet. The perfect film hero is Lassie.”

Hamlet doesn’t just epitomize the privileging of talk over action; this is, in fact, the play’s anguished subject. The famously wronged Danish prince, though he has ample cause for revenge and even a few ghostly reminders of it, spends the play considering and reconsidering “enterprises of great pith and moment.” When he does finally dispatch his usurping uncle, Claudius, it is not the successful fruition of a plan but an act of desperate extremity, undertaken only after Hamlet knows he has doomed himself.

Three plays that recently opened on Broadway, including Shakespeare’s great tragedy, take up the same dilemma: not only whether ’tis nobler to suffer or to take up arms, but also whether dithering over the best course of action constitutes a moral peril in itself—passive evasion at best, grave irresponsibility at worst. Conscience threatens to make cowards of weak protagonists in the dramas “A Steady Rain” and “Superior Donuts,” a pair of gritty plays from Chicago. And Jude Law’s star-vehicle “Hamlet,” an import from London’s Donmar Warehouse, reintroduces us to the original un-decider, though the director Michael Grandage’s production has weaknesses unrelated to its hero’s lack of resolution.

Set in a sleek, towering gray castle and draped in no-frills modern dress, Donmar’s respectable but plodding Hamlet must be counted a great, lost opportunity. For in Jude Law, an impossibly handsome Englishman with a restless, dancerlike physicality and a disarming lack of native British starch, we could have had a great Hamlet for our time. We catch glimpses of what might have been amid the production’s pallor, but we must fill in the blanks with our imagination. Law could have effortlessly embodied both sides, or two popular interpretations, of Hamlet: the brainy, irresolute, even effete cad who toys with madness and the seething, barely contained, ever-thwarted action-hero Hamlet (Mel Gibson’s approach in his 1990 film).

Instead, Law gives an effortful, play-actor’s performance that manages to strike few sparks off an indifferent, subdued supporting cast. Gertrude, Claudius, Polonius, Ophelia, even Horatio—these may not be marquee roles, but they deserve more than perfunctory attention. They are filled here, instead, by decent but anonymous performers who seem to have been directed mainly to stay out of the star’s light. But this lack of context does the star no favors. Law seems hopelessly stranded in a showcase designed less to illuminate what he might bring to the role than to bask in his mere presence onstage. To be fair, this seems enough for many admiring Broadway theatergoers, particularly those only glancingly acquainted with Shakespeare; and no one will leave this “Hamlet” without a clear understanding of what happened and what was said. But clarity is no substitute for urgency. The course of action that seems most appropriate for this dissatisfied prince is not bloody murder but a Bloody Mary on some southerly beach.

A few well-spent vacation days would also benefit Joey and Denny, the co-dependent cops of A Steady Rain. As in “Hamlet,” the heroes’ overthinking about how to respond to rampant corruption causes as much grief as it averts and only multiplies the heroes’ complicity. In the playwright Keith Huff’s self-consciously urban vision, these hapless flatfoots have much to be complicit in: brutality, planted evidence, graft, casual racism, insubordination and dereliction of duty. At its best, the play evokes a sense of dread, despair and social determinism reminiscent of the novels of Dennis Lehane or the films of Sidney Lumet. But by the time Huff introduces a pedophile serial killer, he has lost hold of plausibility while holding on, barely, to dramatic watchability.

That last quality might be due in part to the star actors in director John Crowley’s matter-of-factly intense production, both of them working hard at their Chicaahhgo accents: the affecting, walrus-mustached Daniel Craig (a k a James Bond) as Joey, a meek recovering drunk who feels compelled to betray his out-of-control partner, Denny, played by Hugh Jackman (yes, ladies and fanboys, Wolverine himself—and, like Jude Law, another overly attractive leading man sweating through an effortful performance). In Huff’s somewhat formalistic construction, these two do not interact so much as perform interlocking monologues that freely mix omniscient and unreliable narration. As with “Hamlet,” the mere presence of such film royalty, miscast or not, strutting and fretting their hour on a Broadway stage seems to be the point of the exercise.

If Superior Donuts is a kind of star vehicle, then the star is the playwright Tracy Letts, whose last Broadway play, the shockingly entertaining dysfunctional-family epic “August: Osage County,” nabbed the Pulitzer and a cluster of Tonys. That the playwright is the driving force behind this exquisite ensemble piece from Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre may account for its considerable storytelling punch and its sense of homegrown authenticity. Michael McKean (of “Spinal Tap” fame) plays Arthur Przybyszewski, an aging hippie who barely keeps his inherited donut shop open in a crumbling North Side neighborhood. Haunted by a broken marriage, an estranged daughter and his Vietnam-era draft evasion—an approach distinct from draft resistance, as he painstakingly points out—kindly, passive Arthur is as checked out as a person can be and still be breathing.

He perks up, reluctantly, when a cocky young African-American named Franco Wicks (Jon Michael Hill, a real find) fast-talks himself into a job as his assistant, and the two settle into an amiable, bickering rapport that slowly edges into a kind of wary friendship under Tina Landau’s sympathetic direction. Their connection grows thick enough that when it is threatened, the faultlessly nonconfrontational Ar-thur—whose disappointed father’s last word to him was “coward”—feels compelled at last to take decisive action in a touchingly absurd but deadly serious second-act brawl.

While this scenario—aging white liberal spars and bonds with young black livewire—barely skirts cliché, and while the gangsters who arrive to sharpen the conflict seem to have entered through a door marked “stock 1970s villains,” Letts is a sure-handed entertainer who engages us directly on so many levels that we easily forgive the familiar and contrived in his work. Actually, we welcome them almost as ritual signifiers that prepare us for the true theatrical communion at work in his plays. Though the show’s retro sit-com rhythms may lull us into thinking we’re in TV Land, the play does not live there. Instead, sneakily but surely, Letts addresses the battle-worn but true-hearted hopefulness, in matters racial and otherwise, that characterizes the still-aborning age of Obama.

The play’s final words offer a bracingly optimistic and timely answer to the most famous existential question in literature, Hamlet’s “to be or not to be,” as Arthur sits at a table in his greasy donut shop, bruised but unbowed, and begins Franco’s ambitious novel by stating its title: “America Will Be.”

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