Howard Swain (left) and Lance Gardner in “Superior Donuts” at TheatreWorks
Photo by Tracy Martin
By Tracy Letts
Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts
Mountain View, Calif.
Oct. 6-31, 2010
There’s hardly a hole in Tracy Letts’ “Superior Donuts.” The Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “August: Osage County” has followed that success with a comedy-drama that is part buddy-flick, a love song to Chicago and a series of well-drawn character sketches. In a well-acted regional theater premiere at TheatreWorks in Mountain View, Calif., it is a delicious confection, heavy on laughs but with enough substance to chew on.
Arthur (Howard Swain) came of age in the 1960s as a war resister and a pony-tailed pot-smoking hippie. The pony-tail is gray now and Arthur himself is 60, but nothing else has changed much. Arthur is seriously depressed. His wife left, then died, and he is estranged from his teenage daughter. He has little in his life except the run-down donut shop he inherited from his Polish immigrant father. Some days he even summons up the energy to come in and open it up. As the play begins, he arrives, shrouded in a parka (although the snow effects are a little spotty, other echoes of the Windy City like the term “pop” for soda and the rumble of the El train going by warmed the heart of this former Chicagoan), to find the place vandalized. Two friendly neighborhood cops, one of whom has a crush on Arthur, are there to investigate, called by the owner of a neighboring video store.
These minor characters are sharply drawn. Randy, the female cop (Julia Brothers) is as reticent about her affections as she is tough on the outside. Her African-American partner James (Michael J. Asberry) is a habitué of “Star Trek” conventions – complete with costume. The guy next door, Max (Søren Oliver), is a Russian immigrant with a big accent and even bigger ambitions. Among them is a burning desire to acquire Arthur’s shop in order to enlarge his video empire. They are joined by Lady (Joan Mankin in a wonderful cameo), an alcoholic bag lady who gets a daily handout of donuts and coffee and gives some pretty sharp advice in return. Although these characters are not at the heart of the story, they are the heart of the play. All the contradictions of the declining urban scene come out in their banter. Racial tensions, economic inequality and loyalty are almost palpable through their interaction. The actors are marvelous, although Oliver’s accent sometimes makes him difficult to understand. But he’s so funny, it doesn’t really matter.
The heart of the matter is Franco, the last arrival. An African-American college dropout who believes he has written “the Great American Novel” (and, according to Arthur, who reads it, probably has) is looking for a job, any job, even sweeping Arthur’s floors. And that’s what he gets. Wonderfully played by Lance Gardner, Franco is as ebullient as Arthur is withdrawn. He’s a good kid, enthusiastic and full of ideas to update the donut shop and revamp Arthur while he’s at it. But Arthur doesn’t talk about himself – to anybody but the audience. Swain’s intermittent soliloquy’s break the fourth wall to give us the back story — his disapproving father, his flight to Toronto to evade the draft and his subsequent marital woes. If the play has a flaw, Letts’ use of this device may be it. Yet, it is necessary for our understanding of the man.
Franco has a secret of his own, but it doesn’t come out until the second act. He’s in serious debt and the play turns more serious accordingly, although there are still plenty of laughs. Two juice men, Gabriel Marin and his henchman, played by Elias Escobedo, come for their money and ultimately exact their revenge. Marin, all friendly and “empathetic” (in his own words) hates to do it but his buddy has no such compunction. When Franco ends up in the hospital, it becomes a test of friendship and there is a showdown between the donut shop owner and the thug that is as funny as it is violent. How Swain and Marin manage to walk offstage every night is a tribute to fight director Jonathan Rider.
Tom Langguth designs a mean donut shop and the costumes by B. Modern (is that name for real?) are spot on. Leslie Martinson directs with a sharp ear for comedy and a keen eye for the more serious matter. “Superior Donuts” is another treat from TheatreWorks, which has a habit of serving up some tasty stuff. Take a bite. I had mine with sprinkles.