Review: Superior Donuts at Southwark Playhouse (The Arts Desk)

Mitchell Mullen in Superior Donuts image by Simon Annand

Written for The Arts Desk

“Consider the donut!” One might have assumed that a significant chunk of Tracy Letts’s Superior Donuts would be a heartfelt ode to the fried dessert cake itself. In fact Letts’s play, set in a donut shop nestled in an economically and culturally diverse borough of Chicago, dwells on the personal and political make-up of the shop’s most dedicated staff. All two of them.

It’s a look into the ways we can evade life, skip its hardest tests and sink fast without the buoyancy of hope. But while the author of the play and film of August: Osage County gives us a very different sort of script, in the hands of theatre company The Trick, this 2009 Broadway entry can be uneven and corny at times, however heartfelt.

Arthur, we soon learn, knows a thing or two about evasion on both the personal and military fronts

The play begins when the shop owned by the bearded, ponytailed Arthur Pryzybyszewski (Mitchell Mullen, the cast’s lone American) is broken into. Now almost 60, scruffy Arthur quietly accepts the demise of his business. Slow to clean it up, loathe to sell and not hopeful enough to fight, he still struggles to let it go. His neighbour and fellow retailer Max Tarasov (Nick Cavaliere) makes an almighty Russian noise about the vulnerability of his Polish rival and the black kids who sell pot on the corner, while Arthur says almost nothing but pauses occasionally to reflect on his past, his splintered family and the decisions that led him to this point.

The bulk of Arthur’s speech comes in the form of direct address to the audience, which give us both a sense of a onetime hippie’s radicalised past and his take on the urban environment in which he finds himself in the present. His neighbourhood is adapting to a globalised, pre-packaged kind of gentrification (cue various mentions of Starbucks) but the problems remain the same. In fact, it’s the never-ending issues of unemployment, exploitation and family that send a young black man called Franco Wicks his way.

Young, optimistic Franco breathes fresh life through the stagnant doors of Superior Donuts, the business. He’s written the great American novel, he tells Arthur, and is determined to turn things around for his employer. Played to perfection by Jonathan Livingstone (pictured right), it’s his punchy, racially aware interaction with the disinterested, pessimistic Arthur that brings to light the road less spoken of, the one Letts now wants us to take a look at. A draft dodger, Arthur, we soon learn, knows a thing or two about evasion on both the personal and military fronts. And as he enters his seventh decade, he finds his choices sharpened by the arrival of the feisty and animated Franco, who arrives a bit too neatly on cue to become the child that we discover has gone missing from Arthur’s own life.

Despite excellent turns from both leads, some of the supporting performances in director Ned Bennett’s production are patchy, and Fly Davis’s set is so dilapidated that I was convinced the next knock at the door might well be the health inspector. That said, Letts deserves credit for making us hear anew the quietly spoken Arthurs of this world, who keep on going amidst the noise of life and – however given over they may seem to evasion and non-commitment – also know just when to fight.

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