By Philip Pearce
WITH A BUSY WEEKEND upon me, I only bought a ticket to the opening night of Tracy Letts’ Superior Donuts at MPC at the last minute but I’m glad I did.
I think I went expecting something at least tinged with the searing realism of Letts’ Pulitzer Prize winning August: Osage County. The title of this newer work should have tipped me off. Superior Donuts is theatrical comfort food, but there’s nothing wrong with that if it’s part of a balanced diet.
It’s one of those comedies, like Friends, that happen in a public gathering place with a varied clientele of quirky but congenial regulars and a sprinkling of intriguing newcomers. Everybody eventually shares an interesting personal conflict or two, sometimes with others, sometimes just with us, the audience.
An aging ex-hippie with the tongue-twister name of Arthur Przybyszewski years ago inherited from his parents a snack eatery called Superior Donuts, which a newly hired black college boy named Franco Wicks argues has overstayed its shelf life in Uptown Chicago and needs some up-to-date music and healthy vegetarian menu options to stay alive.
The conflict between the amiable fuddy-duddy Art and the strident student protester Franco forms a central story line that demands strong performances of both roles. Art Hatley is unfailingly appealing, funny and assured as his namesake Przybyszewski. Letts deepens our understanding of this troubled father figure with spot-lit soliloquies from which we learn of Art’s past life, present conflicts with a baffling daughter and senior regrets about the deterioration of life, joy and fellowship in Uptown Chicago. Hatley handles these interjections with grace and distinction.
Terrell Lyons is a whirling dynamo of impertinent student stridency and protest as Franco. He doesn’t miss a beat in delivering some of the show’s best one-liners.
His relationship with Art is the central skeleton around which Letts’ script fits subplots involving the supporting characters. There’s the police duo who show up to investigate an attack on the premises from a local street gang. One of the cops, played with an easy-going authority by Brandon Perry, is male and black and has family problems and insights on racial tensions. As the other cop, uniformed, white and female, Kalyn Shubnell is a neat blend of feisty self determination and feminine charm. Never one to withhold a cheeky opinion, Franco offers free advice on how to handle a woman who seems more interested in his boss Art than she is in police work.
Virginia Peterson is a delight as a denizen of the neighborhood named Lady Boyle. Jostling around with a push-cart, she seems to avoid turning bag lady only thanks to regular free donuts. Her only major problem is a hearing loss that produces some nice non-sequiturs.
Then there is Elijah Morgan, wonderfully comic and explosive as a volatile Russian named Max Tarasov. Max wants to test his inflated vision of the American Dream and free Art into something new and liberating by taking over Superior Donuts.
Even Oliver Banham and Andrew Rosen, as two Irish baddies hounding Franco for unpaid debts, do their bad stuff with elusive charm, at least until an extended sequence of violence that won opening night applause but struck me as a well staged but clichéd injection of corny cops and robbers melodrama.
Visiting director Kurt Schweickhardt, the scenic and costume design teams and the cast as an ensemble all do a first-class job on a work that has the outlines of a sit-com but from time to time injects some welcome depth into characters who might otherwise seem just pleasant but predictable.
The show plays weekends through December 8th on the Morgan Stock Main Stage.