The current production at Open Door Theater, Superior Donuts by Tracy Letts, premiered at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre four seasons ago. This entertaining cross-racial, cross-generational comedy celebrates the power of love and friendship. It is also definitely a Chicago play with an unmistakable local feel and mood. Insightful director Mary Pat Sieck and her cast of nine actors bring out the realism and the humor in this bittersweet comedy.
The plotting is a tad formulaic but the play is sharp-witted, like a good TV pilot. Think of a good old Norman Lear, character-centered, socially alert sitcom like Chico & The Man.
The setting is a dingy little donut shop in Uptown, a Chicago neighborhood that’s long been on the skids.
Randy Hoole gives a nicely nuanced, layered performance as Arthur, a 60-ish hippie with a pony tail and an unpronounceable Polish last name. He’s the sad-sack proprietor of the titular donut shop and seems to have simply become worn down by life. Arthur’s a gentle soul but does not really engage in the world or the people around him. He’s even oblivious to the lady beat cop (Kit O’Kelly) who clearly shows romantic interest in him. Arthur is such a withdrawn, private person it’s hard to grasp why he suffers from such inertia and seems bored with everything.
He inherited the family business after the death of his father, a Polish immigrant who had called Arthur a “coward” and never forgave him when he fled to Canada as a draft dodger during the Vietnam War.
We meet the characters right after the Superior Donut shop has been broken into and vandalized. Arthur is so defeated he brushes off the break-in as no big deal.
Enter Franco, a street-savvy, aspiring young African-American writer, a Truman College dropout who needs money. Delightfully portrayed by Patrick Agada, Franco is a charismatic smart-aleck who brings new energy to the bleak atmosphere. In mere moments this brash, fast-talking dreamer gets Arthur to hire him as his assistant clerk.
There is great rapport between the two leads. Arthur is a passive pessimist who believes dreaming is dangerous; Franco is simultaneously cocky and insecure but he may be able to bring his boss out of his shell. Although Franco seems a young genius, he also has a massive gambling debt and a hoodlum bookie on his tail who is growing increasingly impatient.
Emotionally detached Arthur seems to have thrown in the towel on life and love, but Franco works hard trying to renovate both his boss and his shabby business. Arthur is impressed with Franco’s remarkably good hand-written novel, a bundle of scrap paper and notebooks all tied together with twine. They disagree a lot but they’re good for one another. Franco essentially becomes Arthur’s surrogate son.
John Roeder, Oak Park theater veteran, is funny and feisty as the bigoted Russian immigrant owner of the DVD rental store next door who wants to buy Arthur’s shop so he can expand. His hulking nephew is Matthew J. Gibson.
Diane Pingle nicely plays Lady, a recovering alcoholic homeless woman who seems to be the donut shop’s only regular customer. Renardo Johnson is fun as a tough cop with a nerdy Star Trek obsession. An angry hood and his goon are played by Kevin Bry and Travis Barnhart.
The play, like the city of Chicago, has a heavy emphasis on ethnicity. It is especially fun for anyone who remembers the city, as they say, back in the day. The dialogue is peppered with nostalgic site-specific references to everything from Riverview Amusement Park to those big Magikist lips that used to loom over the Eisenhower Expressway.
Some of the situations feel derivative. Though the performances are solid, the working-class characters are archetypes: the emotionally numb ’60s burnout, the predatory loan shark in pin stripes and fedora, the streetwise wise street lady, and so forth.
The extensive violent brawl sequence near the climax of the play must be difficult to execute in such an intimate performance space, but Travis Barnhart, who also plays a brutal enforcer, has done a superior job as fight choreographer.
The wonderful donut shop set was designed by Josh Prisching. It’s nicely dressed, from the various donuts in their bins to the typical “first dollar” framed on the wall along with some old family photos. Isiah Heacox designed a mural outside the store windows that creates the illusion of an Uptown street scene with piles of gray, slushy snow. It’s quite a remarkable set.
Karla Larios is the stage manager.
Superior Donuts is comfort food generously sprinkled with laughs and glazed with charm. It’s a heart-warming crowd-pleaser that showcases enjoyable performances and leaves us reflecting on the importance of connecting with others.