Theater Review: SUPERIOR DONUTS (L.A. – Geffen Theater)

by Harvey Perr on June 17, 2011

in Theater-Los Angeles

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If Superior Donuts had come to us as a new American play by an unknown writer, we might have said that, despite a certain soft-headedness and the feeling that it was the pilot for a socially-conscious situation comedy, it was the work of a promising young writer who has a nifty way with crowd-pleasing comedy. But Tracy Letts, its author, wrote two of the most shockingly powerful plays of the past decade – Killer Joe and Bug – as well as the brilliantly insightful, multi-prize-winning  August: Osage County which, despite the intellectual backlash that always comes to hugely successful plays, changed, for one shining moment, the landscape of American theater. And so it must be said that, given his reputation, his new play is not merely a letdown, but a grave disappointment.

superior donuts geffenArthur, a terminally depressed, pot-smoking relic of the recent past, seems bored by almost everything and is particularly indifferent to the fate of his neighborhood donut shop, which is in constant peril of vandalism by local toughs as well as stiff competition from the Starbucks that has opened just across the street. His wife has abandoned him and has since died, and he has lost his daughter in the process. He is like someone sleep-walking through life, worn down by hopelessness. And into his life comes Franco Wicks, an aggressive but charming African-American young man, who insists upon being given a job in hapless Arthur’s donut shop. Under Franco’s arm is the only copy of a novel he has written in longhand on legal paper. If bells don’t go off when you hear it’s his only copy, then this is your kind of play. And when it turns out that Franco is in debt to the syndicate for a very large sum of money and is told that he is in trouble if he doesn’t pay up in a week, and, once again, bells don’t go off, you’re going to be drawn to this play as a fly is to flypaper.  And if it never occurs to you that Arthur and Franco are going to end up being not only great friends but each other’s savior, well, then, what can I say? You’re the audience for the play. More jaded members of the audience are apt to be a bit resistant to so much familiarity and predictability.

superior donuts geffenAnd yet the warmth that is generated by this relationship is very nicely handled by Letts who, despite the somewhat tired situation, treats his characters as if they genuinely deserve our respect and compassion. And the contrast in acting styles between the laid-back naturalism of Gary Cole’s Arthur and the attention-getting hyperkinetic theatricality of Edi Gathegi’s Franco actually gives off the sense of two mismatched people getting to know and respect each other.

In truth, the entire cast seems comprised less of actors than of real people; credit goes to the actors but also to the costume designer, Laura Bauer, who demonstrates an authentic compassion for these working-class characters in the way that she has clothed them. Randall Arney, who directs simply and even tenderly, shares that trust in the basic truth of the characters. And the incredibly detailed and splendidly crummy donut shop that John Arnone has designed becomes a home away from home for almost everyone who walks into it.

superior donuts geffenBut the formulaic elements of the play and its subplots keep getting in the way. The forward thrust of the play is constantly impeded by Arthur’s commentaries to the audience on the drama of his life, which, while nicely written, are blandly told. A Russian emigrè,  Max, robustly played by Ron Botitta, who wants to buy the donut shop in order to find his American dream by expanding his DVD business into a large electronics store (despite the possibility that an inevitable Best Buy would give his shop as much competition as Starbucks does to the existing donut shop), is, at heart, a rather stock character. And Paul Dillon’s local gangster may wisely play down the danger and menace that would turn his character into a cliché, but it doesn’t really avoid that particular pitfall. Kathryn Joosten also struggles against stereotype by giving her alcoholic bag lady a wry and weary looseness.

But the fact that Franco’s book turns out to be beautifully written, turning him into a budding Ralph Ellison, can’t help but ring a bit false. And then there is an elaborate if poorly-staged fight in the second act which hasn’t decided whether to play for laughs or be taken with a frightening seriousness and which had the audience whooping and hollering, as if somehow it was being transported back to its childhood, to a Saturday matinee at the movies. In short, try as it may, Superior Donuts, which piles on the sugar almost to the point of indigestibility as the evening draws to its sentimental climax, doesn’t really transcend its flaws. Instead, it seems to enjoy wallowing in them. Even as it tries its damnedest to paint an honest portrait of lives in disarray, it keeps pushing our noses into its sitcom sensibility.  One expected more, much more, from Tracy Letts.

harveyperr @

photos by Michael Lamont

Superior Donuts
scheduled to close July 10
for tickets, visit

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