Tracy Lett’s 2008 comedy “Superior Donuts” gives Los Angeles audiences a peek at an ethnic neighborhood in Chicago and some of the characters who live and work there. It starts at 6 a.m. one morning when we meet two police officers, one an African American, Officer James Bailey (Damon Gupton), and the other, a middle-aged single woman, Officer Randy Osteen (Mary Beth Fisher). The local cops are investigating the vandalizing of a donut shop.
The owner hasn’t arrived yet, but Russian immigrant, Max Tarasor (Ron Bottitta), who runs the video shop next door, tells the police who he thinks is responsible for the damage and lewd graffiti. A short time later, the proprietor arrives. He’s an over-aged, pony-tailed hippie, Arthur Przybyszewski (Gary Cole), who seems neither surprised nor upset over the break-in.
Arthur has sort of given up on life, and some days he doesn’t even bother to open his store. A young black man, Franco Wicks (Edi Gathegi) comes into the shop to answer the Help Wanted sign in the window, and therein begins a relationship that will keep us engaged and fascinated for two and a half hours.
The kid is an optimist; Arthur a pessimist, and a quiet one at that. He opens up to no one, except to himself (and the audience) in a series of expositional monologues whenever the shop is empty. It’s through these introspective talks that we learn the most about him: how he met his wife who divorced him and recently died; the daughter he hasn’t seen for seven years; the immigrant father who felt he was a failure; and how he evaded the draft and fled to Canada. After being called a coward countless times in his life, Arthur is convinced that he deserves the appellation.
He not only evaded the draft; it has become a metaphor for his life. He evades conversation; evades relationships; evades closeness. His new smart aleck employee tries to draw him out. Franco is friendly, edgy and bright; he’s written “the great American novel” and is super excited when Arthur reads it and tells him how good it is. The young Franco believes that he can get it published and be recognized. Arthur, feeling he never achieved anything in his own life, crushes Franco’s hopes and ambitions. Soon after that, a loan shark, to whom Franco owes $22,000, crushes his body… by actually cutting off three of his fingers.
The actors are superlative. Gary Cole’s Arthur is natural and seamless in his transitions from the group scenes in the shop to his talk-to-himself-monologues. Edi Gathegi as Franco is a joy to watch; his physicality is ebullient and fun, and you root for him to come out ahead. Seeing the way he gets excited over his potentially successful book, and seeing how Arthur dashes his dreams, resonates with every writer; it represents the ups and downs of artists everywhere and the two sides that conflict their often tortured psyches.
The rest of the cast is just as wonderful. Mary Beth Fisher makes us feel for the spinster cop, whose life revolves around her profession. Her father and five of her brothers were also police officers, but she’s never had much of a personal life. She’s a lonely woman who tries to reach out to Arthur, but he’s too closed off to “get” it. Finally, at Franco’s urging, Arthur attempts to connect with her, but of course, life gets in the way.
Lady (Kathryn Joosten) is a bag-lady-drunk who’ll go either way – drive her South, she’ll go to an AA meeting; north, she’ll go to a bar!
The first act brings us into all of these characters’ lives in a gradual way. The second act moves much more swiftly, and packs all kinds of punches, both figuratively and literally.
There are lots of deep issues surfacing between moments of lightness, and the climax of the second act is a fabulously choreographed fight, where Arthur finally confronts his feeling of cowardice and is able to leave it behind. He gets his self-respect back, while simultaneously delivering a beating to, and getting pummeled by, the Irish loan shark with an ulcer, Luther Flynn (Paul Dillon).
One of the intriguing things about the play is that not everything is tied up neatly at the end. You are left realizing that some things are handled, but there’s definitely much more ahead for each of the characters, and it makes great after-theatre conversation discussing how it will work out for them.
Superior Donuts is an evening of theater that is extremely entertaining and thought-provoking at the same time. The playwright, Tracy Letts, is well known for his Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winning drama, August: Osage County. In Superior Donuts, Letts has taken a more comedic look at a different geographical area and its inhabitants.
Earlier productions of the play have sometimes been compared to sit-coms of the 1970’s. However, as a writer of sit-coms, I didn’t see the similarity at all. To me these seemed like genuine characters immersed in their lonely lives, taking it one-day-at-a-time, and somehow, through all that happens, they come out a little bit smarter, happier, and definitely ready to grow.
Kudos goes to the exceptional direction by Randall Arney, set design by John Arnone and outstanding fight choreography by Ned Mochel.
All this, and plenty of laughs, too! So head to the Geffen Playhouse for a taste of Superior Donuts and an evening of stellar theater.
Superior Donuts plays Tuesdays - Sundays through July 10, 2011.
10886 Le Conte Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90024