Superior Donuts by Tracy Letts. Directed by Paul Mullins.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
". . .nursing our American hangovers."
Charlie Kevin, Stephen Payne, Nic Grelli, Jenny Rohn, Lindsay Smiling, J.H. Smith III, Janis Young, Gregor Paslawsky; photo provided
Tracy Lettsí lengthy play set in a small donut shop in Chicagoís Uptown neighborhood in December 2009 tells the story of two new friendships that intrude on the shopís owner Arthur Przybyszewski. The first is his growing interest in a female beat cop he meets when his store is cannibalized. The second emerges from his proffered friendship for a young black man who comes to work for him. Both relationships are genuine and heartfelt and the small moments in this play tell the back-story and enforce the larger moments which rivet us to our seats.
Without knowing details Arthur ultimately puts himself in harmís way to both protect and defend his friend Franco. He stands up for what is right, as he sees it, and for what he believes one friend would do for another. Coming late in the evening, it is a chilling exercise in coordinated fight choreography. As performed by Stephen Payne, playing Arthur, and Charlie Kevin who plays Luther the fight wavers between obviously stagey and curiously realistic. Considering Arthurís background, his relentlessly old-age hippy demeanor, the combination feels even more genuine than it might under other circumstances.
Prior to this entanglement Payne stammers and meanders his way through an almost setup for a date with the cop, Randy Osteen - played by Jennifer Rohn with both the characterís strengths and weaknesses apparent. Their scenes together have a crackle that is nice and when she finally gets fed up with his impossible behavior the effect is staggering.
Director Paul Mullins has a fine cast to work with in this play. Rohn and Payne each have qualities that seem so very right for the people they portray. She comes at her role with a directness that is obviously ingrained in her own nature. Randy is practically tackled into positions by her creator. We feel Jennifer Rohn tightly grab and tackle the part with gusto; she seems unlimited by her professional police demeanor and available to fly into something between a rage and a giggle. Rohnís Randy has police flirtation down to a science.
Payne, on the other hand, is as floppy as his outsized pants and shirts. His Arthur loves to tell stories to an unseen listener, us naturally except that we are not there. This light-change monologue technique is the one place where the play ceases to work for me even though Payne handles Arthurís ramblings very well. It is easier to do an internal monologue, Mr. Letts, than it is to integrate this information into a scene, but thatís what the play needs you to do. Release Arthur from his reticence to open up to others. Let Stephen Payne play the scenes and not recite the litany of personal history, even though he does effectively. His job is to act, not recite.
James Smith III creates a lovely and charming Franco Wicks. Like everyone else in the play Franco harbors personal secrets that need to be shared. His reluctance to embark on a trip of total honesty lands him in a hospital and prompts a major act of sacrifice and friendship from Payneís Arthur. Their friendship is the true center of the play and the final moment, while an almost inevitable ending, seems a bit imposed and forced. I think that mistake is in the writing and not in the playing.
Janis Young is a perfect Lady Boyle, a street-woman who wheels her few possessions around with her. Gregor Paslawsky plays the Russian neighbor Max to a tee. Lindsay Smiling is a reasonable policeman. Nic Grelli plays a thug perfectly and Jakob von Eichel is believable as Kiril Ivakin, a young Russian counterpart to Grelliís character.
Mullins has done a fine job on a realistic and sturdy set designed by Debra Booth. Kate Turner-Walkerís costumes suit the characters well and Michael Giannitti has designed lighting that effectively mirrors the moments. David Anzuelo has done a spotty job with the fight choreography; sometimes it feels right and sometimes it doesnít.
This play was a hit in New York City and this production won't take away from that in any way. It is an excellent presentation of a long and difficult play, one for which the author might just go and search out a better ending, one a little bit less trite. Dorset gives its audiences a chance, however, to see what could become a modern classic.
Superior Donuts plays at the Dorset Theatre Festival in downtown Dorset, Vermont through July 3. For tickets and information call the box office at 802-867-2223.