Don’t Miss the Definitely “Superior Donuts” at The Public Theater
A member of Chicago’s vaunted Steppenwolf Theatre Company, playwright Tracy Letts is well regarded as both an actor and playwright. He makes his Broadway acting debut this week in Steppenwolf’s production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and won the 2008 Tony and Pulitzer for his August: Osage County script and. His film adaptation of the play is set for release next year.
In The Public Theater’s production of Letts’s Superior Donuts (at Green Lake’s Bathhouse Theater through October 21) his skill as a playwright is evident in a degree of mechanization in the structure, but it also comes through in his trust of the actors. With this cast, that trust is well-placed, resulting in a touching and entertaining show.
On entering the theater, audiences find themselves faced with a near-perfect theatrical depiction of a greasy coffeeshop in staged disarray. Only the unbleached napkins mar the simplicity. It’s the kind of place that might well persist in serving coffee in Styrofoam cups—whether eating in or taking it to go.
Where there’s disarray there are questions and this evening begins with the facile expositional device of a police interrogation, though the answers are less about plot than character. This is not to say that the play lacks for action; it is an eventful story but there are few surprises in this well-made play. That same mechanical precision of the opening scene sets up dominoes and reliably knocks them down. The structure and its contents work remarkably well, such that audiences will be taken in by the sentimental plot even if we can’t help noticing the mechanics of how we’re being taken in.
The formulaic qualities even serve to enhance, by contrast, the two ambiguous points of the play: an unsolved mystery and an 11th-hour moment of tender human connection. That connection, between two of the least prominent characters, may be the highlight of the show. Hope and fear each have their dangers and ultimately our only real security is in one another.
The story centers on the doughnut shop proprietor. Arthur (Kevin McKeon) has the look of an aging hippie, disheveled, with a long gray ponytail, but his demeanor is less relaxed than a cowed stillness. The other fully developed character in this script is Franco (Charles Norris), a young man of boundless optimism and troubled circumstances.
Despite his reserve McKeon feels comfortable in his role. Norris delivers a high-energy, kinetic performance that provides the necessary contrast to McKeon’s still reserve yet manages not to feel over-the-top or artificially broad. Neither fully embodies their characters’ transitions but here Letts’s plot props up any want of unvarnished emotional vulnerability. The playwright’s finest work comes in ensemble roles that have just enough detail to provide the actors with a skeleton from which to build their characters and this cast does the job.
Those supporting roles include a pair of neighborhood cops, Randy (Jená Cane) and James (Troy Allen Johnson). With a shift in Randy’s physical comfort in the coffeeshop Cane tells us everything we need to know about her character’s evolving story. The off-duty James contrasts with his on-duty persona in subtle ways that feel very honest.
Geoffrey Aim’s fight choreography looks good even while running a bit long and feeling just a bit lucho libre. Alexander Samuels delivers a nicely underplayed drunk scene. Craig Wollam’s set is well-researched and executed and makes effective use of the space, though insufficient masking makes for some distractions for the house-left audience. Tim Wratten’s lighting design is remarkable, going a step beyond utility and finding art in the flickering of fluorescent lights while keeping the scene and the actors attractive.
Superior Donuts may be more of a Chicago story than simply an American or human story. The industrial working-class immigrant tale of assimilation and establishment of new values and new relationships with other immigrant groups is Arthur’s bedrock. The winter cold, louche ethnic habits in food, entertainment, and business practices, and the particular quality of urban Midwestern communities are all front and center.
Nonetheless director Russ Banham doesn’t push the colloquial too hard. Despite some wandering accents, the voices don’t let us forget where we are but nor are we subjected to an evening of adenoidal ChiKAgo. While the particulars of plot and character are specific, the relationships are universal and this Superior Donuts deftly cuts to the core of what it means to be a community.