It’s taken a few years for Tracy Letts’ Superior Donuts to make it from Chicago to Broadway to Westwood—even San Diego beat the Geffen Playhouse to the punch—but for those in search of two-and-a-half hours of laughter with more than a bit of depth, the latest from Pulitzer-&-Tony-winning Letts proves well worth the wait.


Who would have thought that the writer of August Osage County and Bug would come up with one of the “feel-goodest” (feel-best?) plays of the year? And yet he has. Superior Donuts will put a smile on your face from the get-go and leave an even bigger one in your heart by the time the lights go out on its Odd Couple of protagonists.

The native Oklahoman playwright (and Steppenwolf staple) has set Superior Donuts in his adopted Windy City, in a rundown Uptown donut shop whose rundown 60ish owner Arthur Przybyszewski (Gary Cole) arrives one December morning to find the business started by his Polish immigrant father broken into and vandalized. At first glance, at least, aging hippy Arthur seems much less upset about the break-in than his Russian neighbor Max Tarasor (Ron Bottitta), the pair of police officers (Mary Beth Fisher and Damon Gupton) called by Max to the scene of the crime, or the homeless bag lady (Kathryn Joosten) stopping by for her daily free donut and bathroom break.

The recent death of Arthur’s ex-wife and the complete absence of his eighteen-year-old daughter from Arthur’s life these past six years have left the scruffily dressed, bearded, ponytailed donut shop owner about as listless and rudderless as they come—and in need of something or someone to infuse his do-nothing, go-nowhere existence with a zest for living he may have forgotten he once even had.

That someone or something happens to be a twenty-one-year-old African American go-getter named Franco Wicks, one of the most engaging characters ever to set foot on a stage, particularly as brought to effervescent life by a young actor named Edi Gathegi in one of the year’s most exciting (and sure to be most talked about) star turns.

If Arthur and Franco’s relationship smacks more than a little of TV’s Chico And The Man, it’s perhaps because Superior Donuts has more than a bit of the sitcom in it—albeit about six episodes worth. (“You know who looks good in a pony tail?” quips Franco. “Girls … and ponies.”) Then again, August Osage County trod much of the same nighttime-soap ground as say Dallas did, and did so with maximum finesse. What sets both AOC and SC apart from their TV counterparts is the richness of Letts’ writing and the layers given to each character by some of the finest actors around. If Superior Donuts is a sitcom, then it’s a sitcom of the highest, classiest order.

Playwright Letts ups the reality stakes by making Arthur a onetime draft evader who spent most of the Vietnam War years in Canada, only returning to the States when given the green light by Jimmy Carter. Not that anyone in Arthur’s life these days knows anything about his past, or even that much about his present. In fact, the only reason we in the audience are privy to Arthur’s inner thoughts and demons is that Letts gives him a series of monologs in which he both asks and answers questions about his life. (For those who wonder why this Q&A format takes the place of more traditional soliloquies, Letts provides the A to this Q in the play’s final moments.)

There’s also a good deal of “plot,” though nowhere near as much as in August Osage County. Officer Randy, the sole female amongst five cop brothers and a sixth who somehow chose a different line of work, has a thing for Arthur, who seems blind to her interest until Franco steps in. The younger man owes $22,000 dollars to a loan shark named Luther Flynn (Paul Dillon), a suave but scary type who is never without his beefy young sidekick/bodyguard Kevin (Matt McTighe), the better to put the fear of retribution in the hearts of his debtors. Max is in dire need of Arthur’s property in order to expand his neighboring shop into an electronics superstore with Arthur none too willing to sell. Meanwhile, Franco has just finished his Great American Novel (entitled America Will Be! after a Langston Hughes poem), written entirely in longhand in a stack of rubber-banded legal pads its author seems (plot-conveniently) unhurried about getting photocopied or typed into a computer.

Unlike August Osage County, whose huge cast of characters were hardly a sympathetic bunch of human specimens, Superior Donuts gives us Arthur and Franco, two men whom it is quite easy to care about, and in whose stories it is not at all difficult to become invested, particularly as brought to life by Cole and Gathegi.

If anyone can follow Chicago-&-Broadway’s Michael McKean in the role of Arthur, it’s Steppenwolf vet Cole, out-and-out stupendous as the gruff yet somehow sympathetic Mr. Silent P. (Przybyszewski is pronounced Shub-er-shef-ski, if you can believe it). Cole’s is a performance every bit as internal as his costar’s is external—introvert and the extrovert coming out a perfectly matched set.

Still, if there’s a performance people are going to leave the theater raving about, it’s that of the charismatic, dynamic, utterly endearing Gathegi. A whirlwind of manic energy and irrepressible joy, Gathegi’s Franco is a character you embrace from his very first appearance, and the actor one you instantly decide to see in every single role he plays from now on.

Randall Arney’s direction is both spot-on and invisible, as much as anything because he has made sure to surround Cole and Gathegi with a uniformly splendid ensemble, from Bottitta’s irrepressible Russian entrepreneur to Dillon’s deceptively good-natured gangster to Fisher’s tough-and-tender lady officer to Gupton’s businesslike but big-hearted fulltime cop (and part-time Trekkie) to Joosten’s quirky, multi-faceted (bag) Lady Payne. McTighe and Brian Abraham (Kiril) are fine as well in their smaller roles.

Design elements are Broadway caliber through and through, from John Arnone’s detailed recreation of a rundown Chicago donut shop to Laura Bauer’s carefully chosen costumes to Daniel Ionazzi’s inspired lighting design to Richard Woodbury’s sound design (which punctuates the action with the roar of Chicago’s “L”) and some jazzy scene-change music. On the other hand, Ned Mochel’s fight choreography (or at least the cast’s execution of it) seems under-rehearsed or mis-choreographed, a number of punches “landing” a foot or so apart from their target and some sound effects a bit too obviously sound effects. Mary Michele Miner is production stage manager, Susie Walsh assistant stage manager, Amy Levinson dramaturg, and Phyllis Schuringa casting director.

Those expecting another August Osage County are advised to adjust their expectations to considerably lighter, funnier, more optimistic fare this time around. Superior Donuts may not be superior (or even equal) to Letts’ masterwork, but it’s far from inferior theater. In its own way, both play and donuts are something quite tasty indeed.

Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood.
–Steven Stanley
June 9, 2011
Photos: Michael Lamont

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