By Clark Groome
For reasons having to do with theater schedules, winter weather and upper respiratory bacterial infections I hadn’t been to the theater since early February when I caught up with the Arden Theatre Company’s production of Tracy Letts’ “Superior Donuts” at the matinee on March 20. What a nice way to break the fast.
The play takes place in an old doughnut shop under the El in Chicago. The owner, Arthur Przybyszewski (Craig Spindle), is an unrepentant and unreformed hippie who, after returning from Canada where he evaded the Vietnam-era draft, inherited the shop from his father.
On the day we first meet him his shop has been vandalized. The cops are there, as is his Russian-émigré-DVD-store-owner-neighbor Max Tarasov (David Mackay). Max’s theory is that the vandals were local black kids. The cops, one of whom is black, don’t have any evidence of that one way or the other.
Arthur’s shop is often closed, in part because he has no help. Into this situation comes a 21-year old black kid named Franco Wicks (James Ijames), looking for a job.
Franco is bright, energetic and challenging. For all their differences, Arthur and Franco clearly and quickly connect. As the smart and often very funny play unfolds, there are more twists than in any cruller you can imagine. Not to spoil any of it, I won’t reveal them.
What I will tell you is that the play deals in a unique and intelligent way with family, racism, fear, politics and love. Thanks to director Edward Sobel’s terrific Arden production, the characters and the issues come vividly alive.
If you’re old enough to remember the Vietnam era, you will clearly recognize Arthur. He is principled, decent, somewhat lost and looking for more in his life than Superior Donuts can supply. Craig Spidle’s performance is flawless. As for Franco, James Ijames gives one of the most complete and entertaining turns I have seen in a long time. This Franco is both beguiling and maddening (mostly beguiling).
The supporting characters are all first-rate, especially Jennifer Barnhart as Officer Randy Osteen and David Mackay as Max. The production team — Kevin Depinet (set), Alison Roberts (costumes), Michelle Habeck (lighting), Robert Kaplowitz (sound) and John V. Bellomo (fight choreography) — gives the characters and story the perfect environment.
“Superior Donuts” is not without its holes. There are times when it borders on being contrived. Those times pass quickly. Letts’ intelligent and articulate writing, intriguing characters and the Arden’s wonderful production make this one of the best offerings of the 2010-2011 theater season so far.
For tickets to Tracy Letts’ “Superior Donuts,” playing at the Arden Theatre through April 3, call 215-922-1122 or visit www.ardentheatre.org.