Even the best artists can put out work that just doesn’t work. Playwright Tracy Letts won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony in 2008 for his play August: Osage County, but his most recent play, Superior Donuts, has not met with the same critical success. PURE Theater tackles the play, meeting with results as mixed as a Krispy Kreme variety pack.
Director Sharon Graci introduced the play and explained that the small space they had turned into a theater, located in the Ansonborough Shopping Center, was not their real home. The company has been homeless since 2007, but performs in various venues around town.
The play’s setting is a doughnut shop in a multi-ethnic neighborhood in contemporary Chicago, with African-Americans, first and second generation immigrants from Poland and Russia, and bookie thugs in the mix. Sitting around a doughnut shop working out life’s problems in a couple of hours is like an extended version of Friends, with a flavor similar to that of Norman Lear’s ’70s sitcoms. The anti-Archie Bunker meets Willis, in a way.
While the storyline is disappointingly simplistic, the acting and production values are excellent. Each actor is well-cast in their role. The main character, Arthur, played by Randy Neale, has a lot of dialogue and multiple monologues which he manages with aplomb. Rodney Lee Rodgers plays Max, a Russian immigrant that owns the DVD shop next door to Superior Donuts. His performance is a highlight of the play with his Slavic accent, clever timing, and physical comedy.
There are a couple of scenes that have some great meaty bits. The first encounter between Arthur and Franco (City Paper contributor Michael Smallwood) is sharp and witty. Franco challenges Arthur to a test to see if he is racist after Arthur admits that he’s not really sure. The test is to name 10 black poets and Arthur plays it like a pool shark. When he stumbles and pauses after naming four poets, Franco delivers the best joke in the play: “It’s like watching George Bush on Jeopardy!” Arthur goes on to name six more poets and claim his money.
In turn, Franco earns respect from Arthur when he hands over his unpublished Great American Novel and receives sincere praise from his new boss. The personal transformations which evolve from Franco and Arthur’s relationship is the crux of the play.
Even when we think all hope is lost, we might find it — and sometimes the most random people can make this happen. This theme is powerful but this story is spongy-soft. The slow pace of the narrative and its time lapses are trying.
You would have to be full of hope to choose to produce Superior Donuts. That is not a bad thing; it’s just a curious thing.