Star rating: *** out of four
Of all the places you’d expect to find a sensitive, thoughtful discussion about identity, a North Side Chicago doughnut shop probably doesn’t top the list. Which is presumably what Tracy Letts was counting on when he wrote Superior Donuts, his 2008 follow-up to the Pulitzer Prize-winning August: Osage County.
The play’s premise—a gruff old white hippie befriends a young African-American—along with the opening scene, in which a Russian curses “little black bastards” and a black cop curses “Russians and Polacks,” suggests that this is going to be some kind of enlightenment story, a mostly male, multicultural Driving Miss Daisy. Instead, Letts deftly tricks us into confronting our own biases before he abandons the theme of race altogether and launches into a nuanced and moving examination of friendship and loneliness.
When the cocky, charismatic young black man Franco Wicks (Johnny Ramey) knocks on shopkeeper Arthur Przybyszewski’s door looking for a job, Arthur (Richard Cotovsky) is half-heartedly cleaning up after his store, Superior Donuts, has been vandalized. But as the characters interact, it becomes clear they couldn’t care less about race. Arthur, a disillusioned beatnik living in self-imposed isolation, is forced out of his grouchy shell by Franco, a writer and college dropout who resists Arthur’s negative view of the world, often acting out and deliberately goading his employer.
When optimist and pessimist meet like this, it’s only a matter of time before both are forced to reevaluate their world views. Franco’s talent, charm, and blinkered sense of hope pry Arthur out of his isolation—not to mention his wardrobe of slobby T-shirts, Converse sneakers, and fuzzy gray ponytail—into a potential romance with a local cop, Randy, played likably by Julie-Ann Elliott. Arthur’s stoicism, meanwhile, comes in handy when Franco falls victim to a local gambling shark, Luther (Chris Genebach).
The script has its flaws: Franco never rings true as a problem gambler, and he drops references to Charles Lindbergh, the Grateful Dead, and echinacea with an ease that seems more suited to a middle-aged playwright than a 21-year-old sometime student. The timing between cues occasionally feels sloppy, and the main storylines, such as one about Franco’s great American novel, feel forced. What’s more, it’s hard to believe that a young man in 2009 would compose his life’s work on legal pads rather than a laptop.
But Letts’s play—directed with thoughtfulness and frequent visual jokes by Serge Selden—is strongest when it delivers heartbreaking glimpses of humanity, such as a scene in which Arthur helps Franco piece his life back together after a tragedy and another in which a Russian thug (Aaron Tone) gently guides a confused old lady (Barbara Broughton) back to her chair. Chicago theater institution Richard Cotovsky delivers an understated, compelling performance as Arthur, and he deserves credit along with Chris Genebach for taking part in one of the best fight scenes in recent memory. Johnny Ramey, who reportedly stepped in at the last minute to play Franco, delivers a mesmerizing performance. Russell Metheny’s appropriately cluttered set shows the back view of the doughnut shop rather than the front, forcing the audience to see things from Arthur’s unglamorous perspective.
Superior Donuts isn’t perfect, but it has moments of brilliance as well as a clunky, nostalgic charm.
At Studio Theatre through December 19. Tickets ($44 to $65) available here.