A “Superior” Play at Custom Made Theatre
Shifting gears from their previous journey into absurdism in Albee’s Play About the Baby, Custom Made Theatre has entered the world of naturalistic, poignant and probing comedy with Tracy Letts’ Superior Donuts.
Set in a donut shop that has been handed down from one generation to another on Chicago’s North Side, Tracy Lett’s (August: Osage County, Killer Joe, Bug) Superior Donuts is a gentler examination of the human dilemma than appears in his later works. In the role of Arthur, the beleaguered, first generation Polish-American born, hippie donut shop owner, is a perfectly cast Don Wood. The bold, and outspoken young African-American shop assistant Franco is played by Chris Marsol. Each of them fully embodies the challenges of their roles: Arthur, as older store owner, set in his ways, with a past he can’t share with anyone but the audience, and the youthful broom-pushing employee Franco, an undiscovered novelist with visions of a better future for himself and for America in spite of his own serious gambling debts.
The show opens the morning after the shop has been broken into. The word “Pussy” is scrawled on the wall, broken glass is on the floor from the shattered door, and chairs are turned over. Officer Randy (Ariane Owens) and Officer James (Emmanuel Lee) are assessing the damage and getting the report from the next door store owner Russian émigré Max Tarasov (Dave Sikula) who had called them. Max has always had an eye to purchase the property to expand his own business. Lady Boyle (Vicki Siegel), a local homeless woman, wanders in looking for a cup of coffee and donut, neither of which are available.
In spite of the neighboring Starbucks, Superior Donuts has survived. When owner Arthur Przbyszewski arrives he is unshaken by the damage, suspecting a former disgruntled employee of being the perpetrator but unwilling to go after him. As he cleans up the mess, it becomes obvious that Officer Randy is smitten with Arthur who appears oblivious to her affections for him.
After the officers leave, Franco enters in response to an ad for an assistant. In spite of Arthur’s reluctance to deal with the issue in the wake of the break in, Franco manages to get himself hired. The two soon discover their differences. Optimist Franco wants to improve the place, add music, even make it a coffee house for poets to perform in. Arthur, who identifies himself with hopelessness as the true root of the Polish character, likes the comforts of silence and the familiar.
What we soon learn in Arthur’s monologues are the facts of his past. How he left for Canada as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War and that the last words his father ever spoke to him were to call Arthur a coward. We also learn how Arthur never spoke much to his wife, or to his daughter, who both left him years ago. Now his ex-wife is dead and he has no idea where his 19 year-old daughter might be. In spite of his expertise about all things “donut”, his inability to express himself has kept him alone and lonely.
There is much more to savor in this show: Franco’s attempts to get Arthur and Randy together; the back and forth of employee and employer repartee that eventually rises to more serious conflict as they each face their own personal truths; and finally the confrontation of Arthur with two underworld characters Luther Flynn (Shane Fahy) and Kevin Magee (Rob Dario) who threaten Franco’s very wellbeing.
This is a richly peopled world with well-drawn characters down to the nearly silent Kiril Ivankin (Shane Rhoades) who in uttering two or three words in Russian or English can create an entire sense of empathic loyalty to those in need of support.
While this reviewer saw the last preview of the show (where pacing could use a bit more oomph), it is obvious that Superior Donuts is a production well worth seeing. With Sound Design by Cole Ferraiuolo, Costues by Khizer Iqbal and Set by Erik LaDue, Fight Choeography by Jon Bailey, Director Marilyn Langbehn’s ensemble have created a heart-warming and intimate comedy filled with humor and humanity. Superior Donuts runs through December 2 at Gough Street Playhouse, 1622 Gough Street in San Francisco. www.custommade.org.
by Linda Ayres-Frederick November 5, 2012