Superior Donuts entertains despite a weakness: playing surprisingly predictable stereotypes.
Thursday, February 16, 2012
Playwright and actor Tracy Letts marked himself as a playwright of force with the trangressive and trashy Killer Joe in 1993, and the crazy intensity of Bug in 1996. But Letts jumped up on the list of the most consequential working playwrights when 2007 dark ensemble comedy August: Osage County won a Tony and a Pulitzer for drama.
His reputation for delivering dark human drama spiked with dark human comedy was cemented. So the next step – or misstep – along that incredible path, 2008’s Superior Donuts, is as much of a shock as the uncomfortable revelations in his previous plays.
Donuts is a sweet confection of sitcom-like convention occupied by stock characters. Magic Circle premiers it here, but Paper Wing is going to get the business end of Letts with its June premiere of August, against which Donuts seems like an afterthought.
Set in the multicultural but not necessarily integrated Chicago neighborhood of Uptown, it opens on the aftermath of a break-in and vandalism of the donut shop of aging white hippie Arthur Przbyszewski (Robert Colter). Arthur is so apathetic when we meet him that he cares less about the crime than Russian business-owner neighbor Max Tarasov (James Brady) or the two cops investigating it – Officers Randy Osteen (Vonda Harris), a black woman who hides deeper feelings about Arthur’s plight, and James Hailey (Richard Boynton), a swell white guy who likes everyone and hides a geek streak. Arthur’s optimism for the future, and his place in it, have been dwindling for many years. He’s given up.
Enter co-star Franco Wicks (Shaye Acevedo), seeking a job as shop assistant. He’s the antithesis of Arthur – young, optimistic, black. He’s full of ideas about more progressive snacking options, live music and poetry readings, gussying up the place. Acevedo plays him with the can-do smile of a recent convert to some religion. You just know there’s something in this dude’s backstory that’s kind of screwed up. But he clicks with Arthur. Their rapport forms the sticky jelly of the play. It’s fun to see them bond over a challenge to name 10 black poets, and their push and pull of intimacy.
“You ain’t never seen a brother in Whole Foods,” Franco tells Arthur. “Shit, I shop at Whole Foods.” Meaning, check your prejudices, old man, I may be more like you than you think.
Lighthearted situations abound. Lady (Carol Marquart), a kooky neighborhood fixture, pops in on occasion, dropping goofy logic and laughs.
“How long have you been sober?” someone asks.
“Uhhh,” she ponders. “Just today.” And digs into her cake before leaving.
Letts tackles the subject of race early on when Max suggests to the cops that it was “little black sons of bitches” who committed the vandalism. Officer Osteen backs him down from repeating the phrase and Max slinks off, which seems to foreshadow the way “issues” will arise and threaten to be examined, but then also slink meekly away. The race card gets played heavy-handedly, veering into stereotypes like a car onto sidewalk curbs. The dialogue is punctured with Polocks, Krauts, Guineys, Russkies.
Arthur is harboring psychic damage and ennui from stuff that happened in the 1960s. But Letts doesn’t paint this too vividly, instead referring to a Chicago police riot that was worse than the one we saw on TV. Arthur wears a worn Grateful Dead t-shirt and an army fatigue jacket, though he was a draft resistor. It’s ironic but simple.
Franco is fun, young, elusive. The role retreads the “magical negro” of Sidney Poitier in The Defiant Ones or Will Smith in Bagger Vance – a dark fella who helps the white fella out of an existential hole.
An exchange reveals Arthur’s hole.
“Are you a racist?” Franco asks.
“No,” Arthur says, miffed. “Probably not. I don’t know. I don’t think so.”
It’s not that he’s racist, it’s that he doesn’t care much anymore. In his younger years, Arthur might have slugged or hugged someone who asked him that. Life is about “derailment,” he tells Franco. But neither script nor actor sound that convincing at that point. Colter, in fact, begins stutter-stepping over Letts’ incongruous soliloquies that pop up unnecessarily.
Then the donut shop gets visited by Luther Flynn (Garland Thompson), the neighborhood bookie, and his muscle, but goes so into East Coast mob stereotype that it would make Tony Sirico from The Sopranos go “Whooooaaa. You’re breaking my balls over here.”
When Franco convinces Arthur to woo a woman at the shop, Arthur tries to retreat, whereby he’s pushed back out the kitchen doors by Franco. You’ve seen this before. Many-a-time. On TV. That a playwright like Letts is invoking sitcom seems like a stumble. Magic Circle’s production of Superior Donuts isn’t that big a fall – the audience laughed plenty and the set is fully realized – but its storytelling acumen is curiously undercooked.
Superior Donuts runs 7:30pm Friday and Saturday, 2pm Sunday, through March 11, at Magic Circle Theatre, 8 El Caminito Road, Carmel Valley. $20-$22. 659-7500, www.magiccircletheatre.net