Chicago Theatre Review: SUPERIOR DONUTS (Royal George Theatre)

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by Zach Zimmerman on November 4, 2012

in Theater-Chicago


Arthur Przybyszewski, the gray bearded and ponytailed proprietor of a donut shop in Chicago, enters his store one morning to find it vandalized. Two policemen and the whistleblowing next-door neighbor are already there, witnesses to the trash, tossed chairs, and graffiti. Arthur enters without a word, examines the damage, and sighs, “Who wants coffee?” A second-generation Russian-American, he has weathered hardships and has been left numb to the events and relationships around him. Until of all the donut shops in all the world, Franco Wicks walks in.

Franco, a witty young Black man, responds to a “Help Wanted” sign, as he’s dropped out of Loyola and Truman to make money to support his family. His pants are baggy, but his work ethic and determination are tight—evidenced by a novel he has written at only 21 years of age. His self-proclaimed “great American novel”—entitled “America Will Be,” after a Langston Hughes poem—is hand-written on a collection of spiral notebooks tied together with a bungee cord.

Zach Zimmerman,Stage and Cinema, Richard Cotovsky ,Preston Tate Jr. ,Mary Arrchie,Matt Miller,Karl Potthoff,Christopher Borek,Joanna Maclay,Bryan Kelly,Tracy Letts,Royal George,Greg Rothman

Over time, the professional arrangement gives way to the beginnings of a friendship—but it’s an unstable one that is frequently threatened by Franco’s curiosity and Arthur’s privacy. Nevertheless, the bond between old and young is strong. Neither in the prime of their lives, one craves wisdom while the other seeks legacy; one dreams of the future, while the other longs for the past; the intersection of the two return them both to the present.

Richard Cotovsky and Preston Tate, Jr. are the actors responsible for dramatizing the anchor of Tracy Letts’ play, Superior Donuts, which originated at Steppenwolf in 2008 and transferred to Broadway the next year. Cotovsky captures Arthur’s numbness, while Tate’s near-perfect comedic timing brings Franco’s wit to life. Both are strong, in no small part to their familiarity with the play and each other: Cotovsky understudied the role in the original 2008 Steppenwolf production, played the role in the 2010 Studio Theatre production in Washington, D.C., and also in Mary Arrchie’s production, which played last year and is currently being remounted at the Royal George. Tate similarly played his part in the Mary Arrchie production and earned a Jeff Nomination for Best Actor. Under new direction from Matt Miller, the pair avoid any staleness that might result from reproducing a two-year old donut.

Zach Zimmerman,Stage and Cinema, Richard Cotovsky ,Preston Tate Jr. ,Mary Arrchie,Matt Miller,Karl Potthoff,Christopher Borek,Joanna Maclay,Bryan Kelly,Tracy Letts,Royal George,Greg Rothman

Yet despite the new production, it is still plagued by the same script which catapults this young friendship through a gauntlet of odd plot developments. A cartoonish villain of a bookie (Karl Potthoff) arrives with his young henchmen (Christopher Borek) to collect a debt with Franco. The young man’s book smarts and arrogance have caused him to double down one too many times, racking up a $16,000 gambling dept. The play is instantly transformed from a quiet examination of two cultures into an action-filled piece of threats and masculine violence. How much truer would the play have been if Franco’s problems weren’t a gambling debt, but something more mundane and less sexy? How much more compelling would it have been if it continued to unpack the clash of cultures between the Russian shop owner and his Black employee?

In one of the more promising moments of the play, the pair debate the ethics of running a donut shop in a food desert, where nutritional and affordable meals are difficult to find. It raises some difficult questions: Is Arthur responsible for the obesity of African-American communities? Is Franco underestimating the discernment of customers to know donuts are essentially nutritionless? But issues such as judgment and sensitivity are quickly forgotten as Letts chooses to swing his play toward a more action-filled story—action which rings false compared to the truer, quieter moments buried in Letts’ piece, especially in Royal George’s quiet and intimate Theatre Cabaret space.

Zach Zimmerman,Stage and Cinema, Richard Cotovsky ,Preston Tate Jr. ,Mary Arrchie,Matt Miller,Karl Potthoff,Christopher Borek,Joanna Maclay,Bryan Kelly,Tracy Letts,Royal George,Greg Rothman

Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood is no stranger to crime—gang violence and shootings have contributed to a prevailing perception of the area as unsafe. But perhaps the worst crime is how Superior Donuts, while embracing the diversity and economic struggle of the area, betrays the neighborhood by opting for a well-worn plot twist to heighten its action. Letts is capable of creating stronger moments, evidence by an unexpectedly poignant moment late in the second act: “Lady,” an old, likely homeless woman who frequents the shop (and is beautifully brought to life by Joanna Maclay) is helped to her seat by a large 300-lb Russian man (Bryan Kelly) who doesn’t yet speak English. It’s in these quiet moments, when two people interact and relate so humanly, that the play speaks the loudest.

photos by Greg Rothman

Superior Donuts
Mary Arrchie Theatre Company at Royal George Theatre
scheduled to end on November 25, 2012 EXTENDED through December 31, 2012
for tickets, call 312-988-9000 or visit

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