Compared to his Pulitzer Prize-winning August: Osage County, Tracy Lett’s Superior Donuts is an inferior play. That’s not to say that’s a bad play, but that you have to dial down expectations: it’s exactly the sort of thing that an artist writes after winning every theater award on the planet. In form, Superior Donuts is transparently a valentine to Lett’s hometown of Chicago, and to that city’s multi-cultural neighborhoods--but like most valentines, it’s probably most meaningful to its original recipient.
But there are still pleasures to be had in the Cellar’s production, which runs just one more weekend. The set-up is this: the Polish-American owner of a dinky donut shop hires a young, African-American man as his assistant. The owner is introspective and something of a sad sack; the assistant is a motor mouth with dreams of writing The Great American Novel. Tension and hilarity ensues. Along the way, the shop—Superior Donuts—becomes a hang out for various inhabitants of Chicago, including bag ladies, Russians, and cops. It’s Letts’ take on the American melting pot, with a bit of Scorsese in the mix.
The problem with the play—and this is now my third viewing, after productions in NYC and DC—is that the most interesting character in the play (Franco, the assistant) disappears for much of the second act, leaving us stranded with the least interesting person in the play: Arthur, the morose shop keeper. It’s tough to build a play around a taciturn, depressed character, and while Letts tries to liven things up with monologues for Arthur, these soliloquies have always struck me as cheap and sort of boring.
Andy Thornton’s production could use a stronger sense of comic timing in the first act—some of the jokes that killed ’em in New York fall somewhat flat here in SA—and a second act fight scene—choreographed by Morgan Clyde and Justin Laughlin—strains credulity. As a Russian émigré, there’s excellent work by Lawrence Coop along with Christy Huffman as a kindly cop; and while there could sometimes be better chemistry between leads K.T. Thomas and Bill Gundry, it’s enough to get us through the play. Kyle Lassalle contributes a homey and effective facsimile of a run-down diner: it’s perfect for the Cellar’s awkward space.
Earlier this year, I complained about the San Pedro Playhouse’s weak marketing, and indeed the marketing still seems problematic: even halfway through the run, there were only a couple dozen people in the audience, which I find totally baffling, even disheartening. (I mean, there aren’t even production photos on the website.) There’s no earthly reason why the Playhouse shouldn’t be able to sell out its Cellar space: Superior Donuts clearly deserves superior houses.
--Thomas "Boston Creme" Jenkins, Current theatre critic.
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