‘Superior Donuts’ both substantive and sweet

By Christine Dolen

A donut is no rational person’s idea of a light snack, but if you’re in the mood for something with both sweetness and substance, that donut can seem just about perfect.

Similarly, Tracy Letts’ most recent Broadway play, Superior Donuts, doesn’t have the heft or dramatic depth of his Pulitzer Prize-winning August: Osage County. But Superior Donuts, a conflict-laced comedy that opened at GableStage a day after August: Osage opened a few miles away at Actors’ Playhouse, has much to say about living in a diverse 21st Century America, surviving life’s traumas, and the war between resignation and hope. And at its heart, the play stands as a testament to the healing power of friendship.

Like his most honored play and the earlier Killer Joe, Bug and Man from Nebraska, Superior Donuts displays the talented Letts’ many gifts: snappy dialogue, an engaging plot, the way he laces even the funniest moments with darker undercurrents (and vice versa). This one, artfully and entertainingly staged by Joseph Adler, is set inside a tidily kept donut shop in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, a crime-ridden area that gentrification hasn’t transformed, the new Starbucks notwithstanding.

Presiding over his longtime family business is Arthur Prsybyszewski (Avi Hoffman), a depressed Vietnam-era draft dodger with both a mangy ponytail and a receding hairline. Sartorially, his taste runs to tie-dyed T-shirts that fail to conceal his 60-year-old’s paunch, and when business is slow — as it often is — he’s apt to lock the door and indulge in a toke or three.

His shop — a place so authentically rendered by designer Lyle Baskin that you want to claim a stool at the counter and order a donut — is a fleeting way station for everyone from beat cops Randy Osteen (Patti Gardner) and James Bailey (John Archie) to the neighborhood’s gentle alcoholic, Lady Boyle (Sally Bondi).

Max Tarasov (Chaz Mena), a flamboyant Russian immigrant who owns the DVD store next door, comes by often, fruitlessly trying to persuade Arthur to sell him the shop so that entrepreneurial Max can grow his version of the American dream. Later, bad guys Luther Flynn (Gordon McConnell) and Kevin Magee (Paul Homza) show up, as does Max’s hulking nephew Kiril (Alex Alvarez), all participating in a fight scene so well choreographed by Homza that it looks like Hoffman and McConnell are doing real damage to each other.

But the key “other” character in Superior Donuts is Franco Wicks (Marckenson Charles), a smart, energetic young black man Arthur hires to work in the shop. As rough as his life has been and is about to get, Franco is as powered by hope as Arthur is drained of it. The true sweetness of Superior Donuts flows from an evolving bond that betters both men.

The acting in Superior Donuts is, as is so often the case at GableStage, first-rate.

Hoffman has to cope with Arthur’s character-revealing monologues that, truth be told, could have been integrated as dialogue, and playing depression presents another challenge. But the actor crafts a character who is both an appealing mess and a stand-up guy. The funny, scene-stealing Mena makes you wish Letts would write a play about this wily Russian. In his short scenes, McConnell exudes smiling, exasperated menace.

Charles, a recent New World School of the Arts graduate, finds all the layers in the beautifully written Franco — charm, hustle, despair, joy, humor, the gift of inspiration. Watching him is exciting, both in the moment and because you realize you’re catching a talent at the beginning of what promises to be a brilliant career.

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“Donuts” proves compelling yet problematic at GableStage

by Bill Hirschman
South Florida Theatre Review

Two elements injected electricity into GableStage’s entertaining production of Tracy Letts’ flawed script for Superior Donuts: Marckenson Charles’ breakout performance as a street kid with unfettered dreams, plus one of the most convincing brawls ever seen on a Florida stage.

Charles first gained notice in Mosaic Theatre’s Groundswell last year. Earlier this season, he grabbed more attention in GableStage’s A Behanding in Spokane with a role similar to Letts’ fast-talking, wisecracking character here.

But under Joe Adler’s direction Saturday night, Charles blossoms fully as Franco Wicks. He delivers Letts’ steady stream of irreverent chatter and banter with the smart-aleck stand-up rhythms of Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock.

Ironically, his straight man is played by Avi Hoffman who subsumes his sunny persona to play a 60-year-old hippie whose life froze in 1968 when he fled to Canada to avoid the draft.

After Jimmy Carter’s amnesty, Arthur Prsybyszewski returned home to take over the family doughnut shop in uptown Chicago. His estranged father’s repudiation, a failed marriage and other disappointments have shut him down emotionally and psychologically to the point that Arthur has no dreams and only perfunctory human connections. Arthur’s only desire is to never open himself again to pain and disappointment.

He is a good-hearted soul, regularly giving free donuts to a homeless woman (Sally Bondi). But his closest relationship is a forced friendship with an effusive Russian businessman who won’t recognize rejection (an indefatigable Chaz Mena). Arthur seems pointedly blind to affectionate overtures from a tough-talking beat cop (Patti Gardner, nicely cast against type).

Wicks barges into Arthur’s life like an encyclopedia salesman sticking his foot in the door, an ebullient bundle of pipe dreams and energy who convinces Arthur into hiring him. It becomes clear that the 21-year-old is unusually gifted, although he’s hiding a shady past. The thick stack of notebooks bound with bungee cords that he lugs around is his just-completed manuscript of what he claims is The Great American Novel.

Reluctantly, Arthur begins to connect with the young man, still refusing to place enough value in anything to fight for it. But Franco’s past returns in the guise of a Luther, a loan shark (Gordon McConnell) who clothes unnerving menace with an apologetic demeanor as he demands a $16,000 debt that Wick can’t meet. The inevitable crisis that forces Arthur to come back to life culminates in a bruising, bloody knock-down, drag-out fist fight.

It’s a ritualized, schematic plot played out in a wide range of movies and television series from Chico and the Man to The Pawnbroker. Since this script followed Letts’ scorching Bug, Killer Joe and August: Osage County, audiences need to be warned that he set out to write a gentle humanistic comedy with a moral. It has a William Saroyan The Time of Your Life feel with quirky characters bringing their aspirations and baggage into a communal gathering place and evil invading to upset the balance.

You have to credit Letts for providing Franco with a wide-open faucet of hilarious quips, retorts, one-liners and opportunities to tease Arthur. As good as Charles is, the actor who originated the part for Steppenwolf Theatre Company was just as good. They both nail the material Letts gave them.

But the script has one serious weakness and it undercuts this production as well. Arthur has to carry the play for the first half-hour until Franco arrives. But Letts has written him – and Hoffman plays him faithfully – as a profoundly shut-down human being. Hoffman and Adler bravely choose not to make him some charismatic curmudgeon with a heart of gold. This is a deeply wounded person who does not expose his sorrow.

But the upshot is the audience has no protagonist to connect with. Letts tried to get around this by writing interior monologues for Arthur, but Hoffman dutifully plays those nearly as blunted. So until Arthur reaches his epiphany, the show shuffles along between Franco’s appearances.

You can argue Hoffman even plays him too tamped down, but when Arthur awakens, so does Hoffman. When Arthur rises phoenix-like, Hoffman does not sink to creating some fearless storybook hero. Hoffman expertly shows the dread under the resolve; his Arthur knows before he begins that there will be no clear-cut victory accompanied by a swelling soundtrack. Which makes his resurrection all the more courageous.

That rebirth leads to the knock-down, drag-out fist fight between Hoffman and McConnell, two actors on the far side of 50 slugging it out like they were reenacting the last reel of Rocky. Paul Homza, who also plays Luther’s chief thug, has staged a stunning battle. Most stage fisticuffs look fake even from a distance. This one looked as real as you can hope for, even ten feet away. Homza’s choreography is impressive, but also credit the actors, huffing and staggering like middle-aged men would while beating the hell out of each other. The supporting cast is solid but Mena (who was Hoffman’s sparring partner in The Quarrel last season) steals every scene with his cartoonish emigre complete with fractured English, slicked-back hair, garish bling, booming voice and an infectious joy at living the American Dream.

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Superior Donuts at GableStage is a sweet treat

By Chris Joseph Thursday, Mar 24 2011

Written and presented in a kind of ’70s sitcom vibe (think Chico and the Man with F-bombs), Superior Donuts is Tracy Letts’s followup to his Pulitzer Prize-winning August: Osage County(currently playing at Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre). If August is a cauldron of familial complexities and dizzying dysfunction, Superior Donuts gives us the opposite. It’s lighthearted, simple, and oftentimes sentimental. That doesn’t mean it isn’t filled with nuance or substance.

Avi Hoffman plays Arthur Przybyszewski, a white, aging, pony-tailed proprietor of a doughnut shop on Chicago’s North Side. Arthur was once a ’60s radical who marched against the Vietnam War, but now he’s letting life ease by without putting up much of a fight. His shop is dilapidated and empty, save for the homeless lady who comes around for free doughnuts and coffee every other day. He is worn down, and his life has hit some rough waters. His ex-wife recently passed, and he hasn’t seen his daughter in decades.

When Arthur walks into his shop to open it for the day, he finds shattered glass on the floor and the word pussy scrawled in huge letters on the wall. The neighborhood cops are there, as is Max, the Russian owner of a DVD store next door. Max called the police, and he’s railing against the “black bastards” who did this to Arthur’s store. Without a trace of anger or bewilderment, Arthur shrugs and begins to clean up. Here we see him in all his defeatist glory. Life just beats you down at every turn, so why bother trying?

Not until Franco Wicks (played by a scene-stealing Marckenson Charles) strolls into Arthur’s shop looking for a job do we see some vitality enter the world-weary hippie. Franco is everything Arthur isn’t. The young man is energetic, charismatic, ambitious, and filled with new ideas and dreams. He’s also black. Of course, this is where a play such as this can easily fall into the clichéd traps often seen in old-white-man/young-African-American-man dynamics. In the hands of a lesser playwright, the relationship between the two men would lapse into a sort of tired Do the Right Thingaesthetic where lessons on race relations are shoehorned into the plot. But Letts doesn’t do that. The differences between Arthur and Franco go beyond skin color. Sure, there are the requisite scenes where Franco uses his race to make certain points. But it’s mostly in jest and mostly because Franco is a smart kid who likes to see how far he can get under Arthur’s skin.
Franco’s sharp wit and likability get him hired, and it’s not long before he’s badgering Arthur to spruce up the joint. Franco envisions a modern shop with more healthful choices, wireless capability, and poetry reading nights. “Poets don’t pay the bills,” Franco tells a begrudging Arthur. “But poets drink coffee like a motherfucker.” Throughout the play, Franco tries to steer Arthur in the right direction to lure more customers, while sharing with him his own ambitions and goals. He also nudges the old man into asking police officer Randy Osteen (played by Patti Gardner, who put in a valiant performance despite a case of laryngitis) on a date. Officer Osteen is obviously into Arthur, constantly dropping hints and giving him her personal cell phone number.

But trouble is simmering beneath Franco’s otherwise genuine bravado. When a pair of two-bit loan sharks enters the doughnut shop one day, we learn that Franco is in debt way over his head. His minimum-wage job working for Arthur just isn’t cutting it.

It’s the colorful characters strewn throughout the play that give Superior Donuts its substantive ebb and flow. DVD storeowner and Russian immigrant Max (hilariously played by Chaz Mena) remains steadfast in trying to buy Arthur’s shop to expand his business. Gordon McConnell and Paul Homza’s loan sharks lend some weight as the play’s heavies; McConnell in particular gives his character, Luther Flynn, depth via his passive-aggressive threats toward Franco and Arthur. Sally Bondi turns in a touching and authentic portrayal as Lady, the homeless woman who frequents the doughnut shop, while John Archie is solid and comical as the Star Trek-loving Officer Bailey.
Superior Donuts’s dialogue is filled with quick banter and comedic rants, mainly involving the incorrigible Franco, though Letts probably could have done without the brief soliloquies Arthur gives throughout the story. They fill in Arthur’s backstory and help explain what makes him tick, but they seem forced and unnecessary in the otherwise fast-paced story.
Director Joseph Adler has done a masterful job with this production’s ensemble. Led by the talented Mr. Hoffman, Superior’s actors all have stage presence and great comedic timing — essential in a play where the dialogue is everything.

As with every GableStage production, Superior Donuts has an outstanding set. The entire two-act play takes place inside Arthur’s shop, and thanks to set designer Lyle Baskin, as well as GableStage’s intimate setting, the audience not only feels as if it’s sitting inside a genuine doughnut and coffee shop, but also that the weather outside is wintry. The stools, the smell of brewing coffee, and the fresh doughnuts in the display case put the audience inside Arthur’s shop.

To top it all off, a fight scene choreographed by Homza is as graphic and violent as you’ll see performed during a live production.

At a little less than two hours, Superior Donuts makes for an entertaining evening of theater.

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