Theatre Southwest's Superior Donuts: A Mixed Success, with Some Tasty One-Liners

The set-up:

In Superior Donuts, the taciturn owner of a donut shop in Chicago with few customers hires an African-American male to assist him, and they develop a prickly relationship, while assorted characters enter to complicate their lives. Playwright Tracy Letts, Pulitzer Prize and Tony winner for August: Osage County, tackles themes of racism, the gangster underworld, addiction, the rise of Starbucks, Vietnam-era draft evasion, and more in a comedy with some very dark moments.

The execution:

The setting is the donut shop, with some compelling details, a realistic front door and kitchen door, and an impressive painted brick floor, though the shop seems under-dressed, with a curiously "unlived-in" look. We meet first, not the proprietor, but the Russian-born owner of an adjacent DVD shop, and two police officers, there to investigate an act of vandalism.

Scott Holmes portrays the Russian-American, and delivers a consistent, credible and interesting characterization, filled with boisterous energy - this is a complex role, and Holmes delivers. Osbie Shephard plays the male officer, and is commanding and authentic, though the role is a minor one. The female officer is played by Vicky McCormick, and her role is major, as she wants a relationship with Arthur, the donut shop owner, who is played by John William Stevens. The reason for this is never explained, and is puzzling, as Arthur is no prize - he seems older, timid and largely inarticulate, though lean and with a ponytail. McCormick seems to be still searching for her character. Stevens is a powerful actor, but he seems constrained playing a weak character and does so perforce without his usual authority. And the script calls for him to change his mood and motivation almost capriciously - the result is that the play is anchored by two unconvincing roles.

Sam Flash plays Franco, the young African-American, and is brash and enthusiastic as required, but the requisite chemistry between him and Arthur never quite materializes. When he is interviewed for the job, we are meant to see Arthur increasingy intrigued by Franco's spunk and drive - we can deduce that this happened, but we don't see it. These deft actors carry the narrative, and nail some eloquent moments, as when Arthur praises a manuscript by Franco. Bobbie Giachini is excellent in a minor role, as is Scott McWhirter. Norm Dillon is a new Russian emige, and he has little to to except be stalwart - he does that well. Tiernan O'Quinn plays an underworld "enforcer"; the role is played with sincerity but would be more effective with silky menace. The exposition about Arthur's earlier life is clumsily told to the audience in a series of brief monologues - it is the writing that is clumsy, not the actor.

The good news is that there is a considerable humor in the play, not character-driven or situation-driven, but in the form of one-liners. A lot happens in Act Two, most of it so implausible that I imagine the playwright actually knew people like these, or was exposed to events like these. The play reeks of nostalgia for a bygone Chicago - that may have been the appeal in writing it. The play has echoes of Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, but without the power or the poetry; Arthur even rails at "pipe dreams" at one point. And, for a comedy, the play turns very ugly toward the end. Playwright Letts contrives to tug at our heart-strings at various points, so there are rays of light in the midst of cowardice, brutality, and penury. The work is directed by Trevor B. Cone, and the pace is slow, creating a sense of naturalism - sweeping a floor, painting a wall - but this is at the price of tedium. Sometimes speed can more effectively cover plot weaknesses.

The verdict:

A comedy from an award-winning playwright uses a donut shop as a vehicle to tackle a number of themes, with mixed success. Some strong performances and amusing one-liners considerably brighten the goings-on.

Superior Donuts continues through September 29 at Theatre Southwest, 8944-A Clarkcrest. For ticketing or information, call 713-661-9505 or contact the company website.

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