No man is a donut, but it is possible to be as inert and insubstantial as a day-old cruller, and it is roughly this state that Arthur Przybyszewski (Richard Cotovsky), the owner of the eponymous Chicago pastry shop in Tracy Letts’ latest work, has achieved.
Shambling through the narrow confines of his life in a ponytail and face-obliterating beard forty years in the making, Arthur is not so much haunted by his past as by his indifference to his present. The business of Superior Donuts is to give Arthur one last chance to risk all – if not for himself, then for a friend he admires – and, by so doing, give himself a life in which he has a stake.
To quote Chicago’s erstwhile poet laureate, the late, great Harry Carey – Holy cow! What a play!
It opens with an act of petty crime, borne of passion – someone has broken into Arthur’s store and vandalized it – and climaxes with a much larger criminal act, also borne of passion. You will flinch at the first one, and cheer on the second with all your might. In the meantime, you will witness the developing relationship between Arthur, a 60-year-old burnout, and the twenty-one year old Franco Wicks (Johnny Ramey), a glib, ambitious college dropout who is secretly supporting his mother and sister and who has written, to Arthur’s astonishment, a fabulous novel.
Like a man doing the spinning plates trick, Letts puts several plots in motion in the first Act. Randy, the policewoman who investigates the break-in (Julie-Ann Elliot) is interested in Arthur, but Arthur doesn’t know how to reciprocate. (Her formidable partner [Jason McIntosh] is a Star Trek groupie, which Letts mines for full comic effect). Max Tarasov (Gregor Paslawsky), the genial but vaguely menacing Russian who owns the DVD store next to Arthur’s, wants desperately to buy Superior Donuts so he can expand. Lady Boyle (Barbara Broughton), who is one of the lost souls, wanders into the shop periodically for a free pastry, and utters some loopy but prophetic saying.
Mostly, Arthur and Franco, who at first jab like two boxers testing their opponents, learn to respect, trust and like each other. It is a long walk through the Act, but a pleasant and fun one, leavened with wit and vivid, sympathetic characters. It is only at the end of the Act, with the appearance of two sinister new characters (Chris Genebach and Logan Bennett) that we understand that Franco is in mortal peril, and that danger will be the engine that runs the second Act.
Although it is Franco whose body is at risk, the danger to Arthur’s soul is even greater. Arthur is a man who has given himself up to inertia, and entropy. He opens his store only when the spirit moves him to, and the spirit is frequently still. When Franco proposes a series of initiatives which would allow Superior Donuts to compete on a more even basis with the Starbucks across the street, Arthur objects. “It would interfere with my alone time,” he says, as he smokes his morning J. Wandering in to find the police investigating the early-morning vandalism, he offers them coffee, only to discover that he forgot to buy any and is forced to go to the Starbucks. His slovenly dress and grooming offer another clue to the simmering indifference with which he holds his own life. In The Bridge on the River Kwai, Colonel Nicholson advises his fellow prisoners of war to shave regularly, lest their failure to care about grooming metastasizes into a failure to care about survival. Here, too, we see Arthur as a prisoner of war in his own life, who has served so much time that he no longer cares. Using the excuse that the world is irredeemably unjust so that he can sleep through his life, he is given one last chance to wake up, and do justice.
Arthur maps out his past for us in brief monologues throughout the first Act, thereby letting us understand that he lived a life similar to millions of other American men who came of age in the sixties. His overwhelming theme is passivity; he was, he takes pains to let us know, a draft evader and not a draft resister, and he eventually came, later in life, to marry a woman with whom he was comfortable – language which he also uses to describe his splattered clothing. These facts are important for us to know, but delivered (as they must be) with Arthur’s characteristic ennui and flat affect, they are the only dead spots in a story which is otherwise as lively as the City of Chicago itself.
That liveliness is largely the responsibility of veteran Studio director Serge Seiden, who has gotten first-class performances not only out of Cotovsky, who understudied the role in Steppenwolf Theatre’s original production, but from Johnny Ramey, who was cast as Franco only shortly before the play opened, and from Logan Bennett, who is apparently making his professional debut. Indeed, the entire cast gives enormous satisfaction. Genebach and Paslawsky in particular give layered, complex performances as men of great charm whose fierce, predatory natures lie just below the surface: dangerous men, Chicago style. Elliot, fresh from her appearance in Olney’s Dinner With Friends, makes her Randy so wistfully appealing that every one of us will understand how much Arthur will lose if he doesn’t overcome his aversion to risk with her. Broughton could have played a stock bag lady, but doesn’t; her donut-chomping freeloader comes off, somehow, as an emissary from God to Arthur, gently encouraging him to make the choices he must.
Ramey is just fabulous as Franco, juicy with a fully lived life, and jittery with potential. Franco points out that he is named after Franco Harris, whose “immaculate reception” of a pass tipped off the hands of an Oakland defender brought Pittsburgh to its first Super Bowl, and he apparently believes, incorrectly, that a similar luck will grace his life. Ramey radiates his character’s optimism, and so we in the audience become invested in him because we are invested in optimism itself.
The massive Aaron Tone also puts in a highly satisfactory turn as a sweet and gentle man who gracefully walks the confused Lady Boyle back from the spot where the drunken Tarazov has left her, but who is also the fight scene’s most intimidating presence. This brings me to the fight scene, which is the high point of the production’s fantastic technical support. The Metheny stage is a startlingly intimate space, and a tough venue for stage magic, but my God! what fight choreographer Robb Hunter has done! This is not a few smacks and a wrestle; this is five good minutes in which two men whale on each other, with fists, feet and kitchen implements; bones break, faces bleed, and body parts are seared on a hot burner. At the end, both participants are carried off for serious medical attention. I sat perhaps thirty feet from the stage, and, but for my understanding of the Equity rules, I could not tell whether this was a real fight or not.
Like Letts’ August: Osage County, Superior Donuts is a story which grows from the strengths and flaws of its characters. Although these characters are not as over-the-top as they were in Letts’ previous, Pulitzer-winning effort, they and the story that they tell are no ordinary pastries. They are, instead…
By Tracy Letts
Directed by Serge Seiden
Produced by Studio Theatre
Reviewed by Tim Treanor