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Superior Donuts

by Tracey Letts

COMPANY : Horizon Theatre Company [WEBSITE]
VENUE : Horizon Theatre Company [WEBSITE]
ID# 3997

SHOWING : February 25, 2011 - March 27, 2011



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It Ain't Horse Fat!
by Dedalus
Saturday, April 16, 2011
Arthur Przybyszewski (“Shub-er-shef-ski”) owns and operates Superior Donuts, a shop in Chicago’s Uptown District opened by his immigrant father sixty years ago. Franco Wicks is a college dropout, a wannabe writer with a bit of a gambling problem. Tracey Letts’ terrific new play, “Superior Donuts,” brings these two together with a bunch of neighborhood locals (two cops, a Russian DVD Store owner, a “bag lady” named “Lady,” a bookie, and some miscellaneous “muscle”) and the result is theatrical fireworks.

Mr. Letts has achieved a well-deserved reputation for off-beat and marginal characters mixing it up in sometimes absurd ways. In “Killer Joe,” a hit-man makes a deal with a trailer-trash family with a toxic result of blood, mayhem, and, well, romance. In “Bug,” an unhinged veteran pulls a vulnerable waitress into his paranoid world with (literally) fiery results. And, in “August: Osage County” (being staged next month at Alliance), he takes a chronically dysfunctional family and sets them at each others’ throats. Here, though, he is in a much lighter vein (not that all his plays don’t have their laughs), going for a true comedy of character.

Arthur is a quiet and private man, shutting out others whenever they get to close to guessing his “personal history and story.” Franco is charming and gregarious, bursting into the donut shop like a force of nature, looking for work, and doing everything he can to recast the shop in his own image. The two are as different is donuts and coffee, but they go together just as well. Their growing friendship is almost a dance, as Franco knocks at Arthur’s walls and Arthur opens up to new possibilities (and new risks).

And, when Franco’s gambling problem comes home to roost, the play explodes in a frenzy of sacrifice and friendship and fists/elbows/chairs.

I like how Letts has Arthur confide to us all the “stuff” he hides from his friends in lyrical asides that describe his immigrant parents, his resistance to the Viet Nam War, his failed marriage, and his lost (in the sense of “misplaced”) daughter. I like how, in a few words, the playwright makes us like Franco before we even see him. I like how funny this play is (even the fight scene has moments of off-kilter humor). And I really like how he fills the play with unspoken (and mis-spoken) moments that tell us more about these characters than most playwrights can tell in a multi-page monologue.

It certainly doesn’t hurt that Horizon has put together one of the best-designed and performed plays of the season.

To begin with, the set (by Moriah and Isabel Curley-Clay) creates a marvelously detailed set that transports us to a down-on-its-fortune donut shop. If awards were given for set dressings, this would be a winner – cracked linoleum, graffiti-etched tables, well-used stools and tools, even a vintage Cubs poster. Most of the outside street is hidden by blinds and boarded up glass, giving the whole thing a feeling of haven, of sanctuary, of a private lair that is as welcoming as it is off-putting.

And the performances ripple and snap from the stage. Chris Kayser brings his usual skill to Arthur, assuring us that there is more going on in his head than he’s saying. He has the unenviable task of creating a close rapport with the audience during his asides while keeping any such closeness from the characters he shares the stage with. Bedraggled and unkempt, sporting a pony tail that marks him as a true not-really-ex hippie, he nevertheless shows a quiet dignity that people cannot help put respond to.

Eric J. Little brings enough charm and charisma to Franco that we’re prepared to like him before we even meet him. And, after that charm is literally beaten out of him, we long for its return, making the ending a truly hopeful moment. This is one of the best in a long series of good performances from this actor.

In the supporting roles, Bart Hansard brings his usual likeableness to the rather unlikeable Max, even behind his tortured English and Russian accent. Lala Cochran is warm and vulnerable as the middle-aged cop with a soft spot for Arthur. Nita Hardy makes for a painfully sad alcoholic “Lady” (I loved her description of the death of one of her children from “that disease where the spinal cord gets a mind of its own and decides it don’t want to live trapped inside those little bones no more.”) As to rest, Neal Hazard (as a Trek-obsessed cop), Bryan Bendle (as the ulcer-ridden bookie), Alan Heckner (as the bookie’s “enforcer”) and Sean Michael Moreno (as Max’s oversized nephew) provide valuable threads to the tapestry of this ensemble.

And, congratulations also need to go to fight choreographer Scot J. Mann who has managed to stage one of the most awkward and painful fights I’ve seen. It’s a fight that not only provides a fitting climax to the story, but also, in its own way, reveals even more about the characters involved and the world they inhabit. It’s awkward and vicious and the sort of street brawl that uses anything that comes to hand.

Part of the plot of this play is Franco’s “Great American Novel,” called “America will Be!” (from a verse in a Langston Hughes poem). With “Superior Donuts,” Tracy Letts and the Horizon production team have brought a slice of snowy Chicago to early-spring Atlanta, giving us a funny and moving story told by a roster of some of the most memorable characters (and characterizations) you’re likely to see this season (or at least until “August: Osage County” opens next month). It left me with a sense of a true slice of Americana told in very specific Chicago context. I can’t recommend it enough.

Or, to put it into Franco’s words, “It ain’t horse fat!”

-- Brad Rudy (BK



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