By Tracy Letts
Directed by Edward Sobel
Arden Theatre Company, Philadelphia
March 3-April 3, 2011
Tracy Letts’ “Superior Donuts” is set in a the changing urban landscape of uptown Chicago, yet it is not so far afield from the rural setting of his Tony Award-winning hit “August: Osage County.” Both are about lives of quiet desperation and survival in a fast-changing America.
Arthur (Craig Spidle) is proprietor to a second-generation Polish family’s donut business in Chicago. He dutifully makes the dough for the morning business, except there is no business anymore with a Starbucks down the block. He is as much of a relic as his shop, but he soldiers on for his quirky band of regulars. Things are so bad, he keeps erratic hours and barely reacts when the shop is vandalized.
The denizens of the shop are Randy (Jennifer Barnhart) and James (Brian Anthony Wilson), likable and benign beat cops; Max (David Mackay), a Russian entrepreneur who wants to buy Arthur out; and Lady (Nancy Boykin), a sousy senior who stops in for a donut before she heads to an AA meeting or a bar.
Enter Franco (James Ijames), a 21-year-old African American sometime college student who needs cash fast, so he talks Arthur into giving him a job and he tries to spruce things up by turning Superior into a laptop café for the poetry set. Once they get past the obligatory talk about racism—Arthur sportingly takes up Franco’s bet that he can name 10 black poets—they are just a regular odd couple. Franco looses the bet but gets him back by telling him to loose the ponytail, Pink Floyd shirt and the patchouli.
Franco is also carting around a book he’s handwritten in composition notebooks bound in rubber bands. Metaphors of dreams being bound and ready to burst is a repeated Letts motif. Spidle makes Arthur a hippie knot and unfurls him like a battered flag. He still smokes grass and talks about his glory days dodging the draft in the 1960s, as he tries to appropriate his disillusionment in marriage, family and any dream. James Ijames’ Franco is a young dreamer on the make with the talent sufficient to write the great American novel, but who has to survive first so goes for broke every time.
Letts could lose about a half-hour of exposition as he juggles between meaty character study and creaky plot device. But Edward Sobel, the director, knows how to get past Letts’ filler and allow these characters room. He could have been more inventive with the ensemble blocking, keeping the actors more active in Kevin Depinet’s distressed-kitsch diner, but he more than made up for this as Spidle and Ijames deliver passionate and well-crafted performances.
Pete Pryor as Luther, the gambling shark menacing Franco, does what he can in a very static subplot; same for Barnhart in a very sketchy part as the cop with an eye for Arthur. Mackay is hilarious as the unrelenting Russian capitalist Max. But almost stealing the show is Boykin’s Lady, who, pickled though she may be, in a few words conveys Letts’ most poetic stream.