A Froth of Theatrical Meringue in 'Superior Donuts' at Dobama Theatre: Review

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There’s a simple reason why most of us Americans are overweight. We love sugar, fat and salt, and when we get enough of those staples mixed into our meals, we turn out fat…and happy.

The same rule holds true for theatrical entertainments, as is shown in Superior Donuts by Tracy Letts, now at Dobama Theatre. Letts, who crafted the provocative and borderline repellant August: Osage County has in this instance whipped up a froth of theatrical meringue that audiences will happily wolf down.

It’s got everything: A crotchety, depressed old white guy in Chicago, Arthur Przybyszewski, who becomes pals with a funny, outgoing young African-American dude, Franco Wicks, who is a budding novelist. Plus, there’s an ensemble of quirky characters. How quirky? How about a black cop who is a Star Trek groupie, a homeless woman who is stockpiling pearls of wisdom in her shopping bag, and an Irish bookie who comes across like a heart-warming Father Flanagan until an off-stage incident.

Before the dissection continues, let’s make one thing perfectly clear: This production directed by Nathan Motta is stellar in all ways. One could hardly wish for a better cast, or better pacing, and the production design is spot-on in every aspect. One just wishes all this fine effort were in service of a more challenging script.

Indeed, SupDo is straining so hard to please someone (the audience? the citizens of Chicago, which is Letts’ hometown? both?) that you can see the veins on the playwright’s neck bulging. Franco (a monumentally likable Robert Hunter) is a young man who is so hot-wired for success he overwhelms the dour owner of the play’s titular shop. Sure, it’s a scuzzy hole-in-the-wall in a poor neighborhood of Chi-town, but Franco is brimming with innovative ideas. And even though Arthur seems a dead man walking (as he helpfully explains, “The core of the Polish character is hopelessness”), Arthur hires Franco to work in the shop.

Their inevitable buddy-movie bonding is accented by appearances of neighborhood eccentrics. Max, the Russian owner of a store next door, is always trying to encourage Arthur to sell his store so Max can increase his holdings in the area. Alan Byrne, who took over the role late in rehearsals, is a breezy riot as Max and earns many of the show’s biggest laughs.

Also excellent in smaller roles are John Busser as the bookie Luther Flynn, Mary Jane Nottage as the homeless woman Lady Boyle, and LaShawn Little as James Bailey, the cop who dresses up in Starship Enterprise drag. It’s not their fault that Luther is written a bit too sweet, Lady is written way too wise and James doesn’t have enough words to register credibly as police officer or a Trekkie.

As for Arthur, Joel Hammer is convincing as a sour old guy living out his nasty little life amidst the icing and sprinkles that make up his day. But Hammer is saddled with several soliloquies—spotlighted asides to the audience meant to flesh out Arthur’s biography and give him depth. Unfortunately, these interludes completely fracture the momentum of the play. It seems a lazy way to build a character (let’s just stop the play and read a Wikipedia entry!), and even an actor with Hammer’s skills can’t make it work.

Yes, some darkness is finally introduced into this happy collection of folks, and thank God for that. Also, a variety of political and sociological issues are brought up, including the Vietnam War, draft dodgers, immigrants, the homeless, racial prejudice. But these touches are too glancing and oblique to be taken seriously.

That said, you will enjoy Superior Donuts because Letts knows how to craft some very funny lines, and the Dobama production is just as eager to please as the script. But it could have been so much better if only Letts had brought more of Osage County to this particular corner of Chicago.

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