As aphorisms go, "never judge a book by its cover" is one of the dustiest, but playwright Tracy Letts has polished this chestnut until it positively shines in the new TheatreWorks production of Superior Donuts, now through October 31, 2010 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts.
The plot of this funny, moving and perceptively written play revolves around a single question: What's it going to take to get Arthur Przybyszewski (Howard Swain), the ponytailed, stoner owner of a time-capsule of a doughnut shop in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago, to face his fears of darned-near everything and finally decide to fight for something, anything?
Arthur won't share the story of how he's arrived at his existential paralysis, as Arthur's very Russian neighbor, Max Tarasov (SÃ¸ren Oliver), explains to a pair of cops, Randy Osteen (Julia Brothers) and James Bailey (Michael J. Asberry), in the play's first scene. It's early on a cold winter's morning, and Superior Donuts has been vandalized -- someone has smashed the glass on the shop's front door, knocked over all the tables inside, and spray-painted the word "PUSSY" on a wall. Upon entering his place of business, which is filled with the officers and Max, Arthur is so out of it, so divorced from reality, that the only thing he finds remarkable about the morning is the fact that he's out of coffee.
Photo: Mark Kitaoka
Instead of giving the people who care about him some insight into his troubled soul, Arthur confides in the audience, who he addresses periodically throughout the play, spilling his tale of draft-dodging desertion in the 1960s and lost years of exile in Canada to the faceless void rather than the people who could benefit from it the most. We learn plenty about Arthur and his relationships with his father and daughter, but we're not really the ones he needs to connect with, are we? It's a neat trick by Letts -- by satisfying our curiosity about this odd duck, we start to see the world through Arthur's eyes, which includes sharing his sense of isolation.
Photo: Tracy Martin
Into Arthur's sad little universe of fried carbohydrates bursts Franco Wicks (Lance Gardner), a fast-talking young African American who could talk a pig into a ham sandwich. Before he knows what's happened, Arthur has hired Franco, even after Franco has accused Arthur of unwittingly contributing to African-American obesity and probably being a racist. Indeed, it's racism, or at least the sort of racism that pushes people beyond their prejudices to prove they are not, that compels Arthur to hire the lad.
The chemistry between the two actors is very good, especially when the dialog is at its fastest. Gardner, in particular, has a ball with the script, milking jive stereotypes for all they're worth when such antics are called for, then shifting gears to toss off lucid observations about human behavior and its oft-discussed condition that would have seemed unlikely just sentences before.
Photo: Tracy Martin
Running as one of several subtexts throughout the play is the universal struggle to make it in America, from Arthur's story of how his immigrant Polish parents opened the family doughnut shop in 1950 to Max's complaints about life as a new immigrant from Russia. This immigrant thread leads us back to those books and their covers, of which Letts gives us numerous examples. I loved the fact that in his spare time, somber James Bailey the cop likes to attend Star Trek conventions. As for Franco, when we first meet him, we see only a young man with some kind of agenda who's going to disturb Arthur's small, boring world.
Turns out the kid's got a novel in him. Well, in his backpack, actually, where he keeps a motley collection of hand-written notepads that he's bound together with a bungee cord. I like how the books-and-covers theme seeps from minor character to lead actor to prop. And what's been written on those tattered and scrambled pages? Let's just say it's a lot more nourishing than doughnuts.
The TheatreWorks production of Superior Donuts runs through October 31, 2010 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. For tickets and information, visit theatreworks.org.