Theatre Review: Superior Donuts

Superior Donuts. By Tracy Letts. Directed by Ted Pappas. Pittsburgh Public Theater, O’Reilly Theater. April 14 through May 15, 2011. With David Agranov, Sharon Brady, Donald Corren, Brandon Gill, Daryll Heysham, Joe Jackson, Wali Jamal, Antoinette LaVecchia, Anderson Mathews. Scenic Design by Michael Swhweikardt. Costume design by Amy Clark. Lighting design by Phil Monat. Sound Design by Zach Moore.

Reviewed by Arlene Weiner

Tracy Letts is a smart playwright. He knows what we in the audience want. He’s a prodigy, too. I’ve seen three of his plays now: Bug, August: Osage County, and most recently Superior Donuts, in Pittsburgh Public Theater’s production. They are all different from each other. Bug (which I saw in Pittsburgh’s barebones theater’s production) is a claustrophobic Sam Shepherd-like play: two no-hope characters in a seedy motel room: intense. And I thought it said or implied something about America. August: Osage County (which I saw in New York) is relatively sprawling: numerous characters, one of whom, whose long monlogue opens the play, disappears. Companies don’t like to waste an actor—played in that production by Tracy Letts’ father–like that! And August: Osage County is a rarity these days, a three-act play. Well-made, too, one surprise revelation after another. If we don’t like any of the characters, with few exceptions, it’s a ride.

Superior Donuts, like Bug, takes place on one set, a rundown doughnut shop in Chicago’s Uptown. The shopowner, Arthur, is stuck. Depressed, refusing to make any change in his life, he’s a regular pot smoker but he never has any highs. His toking just leads to ruminations about his past, which we hear. He had Polish immigrant parents. He ran to Canada to avoid the draft. His father died—right in the shop–and he couldn’t attend the funeral. Nobody in his life hears his stories—he’s a clam. His sentences trail like his gray ponytail, but they illuminate his current (in)actions, as when he says, “There’s a difference between a resister and an evader…I—evaded,” and we see him evade choice in the present.

Into Arthur’s shop come a variety of regulars: two cops, one a woman who’d like to date him; a bag lady; the Russian immigrant who owns the DVD shop next door. Most centrally, a new person comes in: an exuberant young African-American man who applies for the job advertised in the window. Franco (named, we learn, after Franco Harris) is the opposite of Arthur: a mile-a-minute talker, full of plans, and especially full of hope—hope that makes Arthur round on him with uncharacteristic energy: things don’t happen that way. Good things don’t happen, hopes don’t come true.

The play is full of comedy, and, finally, poignant. I can’t imagine it’s having a better production. The actors are fine. The set is perfect. Ted Pappas’ direction is broad in comic moments and effective in moments when deeper meaning must be gleaned. Brandon Gill’s and Donald Corren’s physicality as Franco and Max Tarasov may be a little exaggerated at times, but that serves the play, contrasting with Anderson Mathews’ stasis as Arthur—very difficult to pull off being the center of attention without moving. I noted particularly that Corren was persuasive both as a hard guy and a clown, not easy, and that Sharon Brady as the bag lady perfectly conveyed a pivotal speech, flat yet oracular, when she tells Arthur, “You know what to do.” Wali Jamal as one of the cops shows up in a Star Trek outfit and yet is able to deliver the tragic load of what amounts to a Messenger’s speech in a Greek tragedy.

Because something shocking and terrible happens. Arthur’s view of life would seem to be confirmed. Instead, there’s a transformation, one that we as the audience wish for. Heartwarming. And yet. There’s a flavor of sit-com about the play: the cast of eccentrics with funny lines dropping in. The menace that brings about the climax doesn’t seem organic, doesn’t speak to the condition of life in Uptown—and seems to be quashed more magically than realistically. Maybe unfairly, I recalled August Wilson’s Two Trains Running, in which sharply defined characters drop into a diner. That play—which arguably is not so well constructed as Superior Donuts—seems, like Bug, to speak to our social condition, not just to the individuals’ fates. This is a cavil, a hope that Letts will require more from us the next time. Superior Donuts in Pittsburgh Public Theater’s production is an entertaining night in the theater.
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