Heavy Confection

20. October, 2010 Theater No comments


Show #102: Superior Donuts, TheatreWorks, October 9.

Howard Swain and Lance Gardner in Superior Donuts. Photo by Tracy Martin

By Sam Hurwitt

The Bay Area has been seeing a lot of playwright Tracy Letts’s twisted sense of humor in the last few years, from the pitch-dark comedy Killer Joe at Marin Theatre Company to the freaky psychological thriller Bug at SF Playhouse to the Pulitzer-winning family drama August: Osage County on tour at the Curran. To anyone who’s been following those plays, however, his latest may come as a surprise. As seen in an excellently performed TheatreWorks production under the direction of

Leslie Martinson, Superior Donuts seems like a much more straightforward, even sweet comedy than one might expect from Letts, at least at first, though one may rest assured that it gets awfully grim before it’s done.

Tom Langguth’s terrific set depicts a much weathered, old-fashioned donut shop, with dingy salmon walls and a little bit of diner-style counter seating. Shadowy “L” tracks loom over the old brick buildings outside, and we periodically hear the train passing loudly in Jeff Mockus’s immersive sound design.

Howard Swain gives an instantly endearing, low-key performance as spaced-out hippie donut shop owner Arthur Przybyszewski. It’s helpful that we’re often reminded that Arthur doesn’t like to talk about himself and deflects any questions about his life, because whenever he’s left alone with the audience you can’t shut him up. In a series of autobiographical monologues he tells all about his Polish immigrant parents opening the shop in 1950, the year he was born; about race riots in Chicago when he was growing up; and about him fleeing the draft during the Vietnam War. He delivers these soliloquies as if in conversation with someone, responding to questions we don’t hear, but it’s exactly the sort of conversation we’ve been told he wouldn’t have. He’s also clearly depressed, sometimes not even bothering to open his store, and one of the big questions of the play is what’s going to snap him out of that funk and recall him to life.

That’s where Franco Wicks comes in. A young African-American man who bursts in asking for a job before he even notices what kind of business it is, Franco is an endless fount of energy and ideas, from adding “some heart-healthy alternatives” to the menu to hosting poetry nights. He’s even written the Great American Novel in a huge bundle of notebooks and loose pieces of paper.

Last seen as the restrained Arthur (a different one, obviously) in TheatreWorks’ production of Auctioning the Ainsleys, Lance Gardner is an irresistible force as the irrepressible Franco, with infectious enthusiasm and marvelously sharp comic timing. “Never stop moving,” the protagonist is advised in his novel, and for most of the play Franco is always in motion, pacing, jumping and talking a mile a minute. The banter between Franco and Arthur is terrific both in script and performance, and the two make perfect foils for each other.

But this play is ultimately a love letter to a North Side Chicago neighborhood, and Letts peoples it with a sitcom’s worth of memorable characters, wrapped in casual heavy layers by costumer B. Modern. Julia Brothers is sweetly sympathetic as middle-aged police officer Randy, who hangs around the shop laying hints that maybe she and Arthur should go to a game sometime, despite the fact that he’s heartbreakingly slow on the uptake. Their awkward small talk when they’re both waiting for the other to say something is frustrating in the best way. Michael J. Asberry is nicely befuddled as her partner James, whom she teases mercilessly for being a hardcore Trekkie.

Joan Mankin is awfully funny as Lady, the dazed bag lady who wanders back and forth between bars and AA meetings. So is Søren Oliver as Max, the easily agitated, thickly accented Russian owner of the DVD store next door who wants to buy the donut shop to expand his store. He’s always going on about “these black sons-of-bitches” and quick to add “no offense” to any African Americans in the room.

Gabriel Marin has an oily charm as the outwardly friendly but also seemingly mobbed-up bookie Luther Flynn, always accompanied by Elias Escobedo’s twitchy, menacing goon, Kevin. Jon Deline has a brief appearance with a big impression as Max’s big Russian pal Kiril.

There’s a long and hilariously down and dirty fight scene choreographed by Jonathan Rider, and the show also features one of the most impressive stage snowstorms I’ve ever seen—not because of quantity but because it all manages to fall in the small “outside” area of the set with nary a flake inside the shop.

Things go bad in exactly the ways that you can see coming a long time before they actually happen—what’s surprising is just how bad they get, but even so it’s mostly surprising if Letts has lulled you into such a sense of sitcom security that you’ve forgotten who wrote this play. Much like a donut, it seems sweet and fluffy when you dig into it but proves much heavier than you thought.

Superior Donuts
Through October 31
Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts
500 Castro St.
Mountain View, CA

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