by Hugh Hunter
“Superior Donuts” (2008) written by Tracy Letts and directed by Jane Toczek, is now running at Stagecrafters Theater, 8130 Germantown Ave. Letts won both the Tony and Pulitzer prizes for his previous work “August: Osage County,” a dysfunctional family drama set in his boyhood Oklahoma. (A star-studded movie version just premiered in Toronto.)
With “Superior Donuts” playwright Letts goes off in a larger direction and takes on the idea of “The American Dream.” Set in Arthur Przybyszewski’s “Superior Donuts” store in the Uptown section of Chicago, the play offers a brilliant glimpse of the old blue-collar neighborhood through the glass window of the side door (fine set design by Scott Killinger).
The residents of Uptown struggle in dealing with the area’s burgeoning ethnic diversity and the forces of gentrification, represented by the new Starbucks store that threatens Arthur’s humble coffee shop. Yet Arthur retains a loyal coterie of old customers.
Two police officers, James (Kyle Paul Dandridge) and Randy (Catherine Pappas), are regulars. Max (T.J. Deluca) and his nephew, Kiril (Greg Pronko), are ambitious Russian immigrants who want to expand their small CD store. And a doddering, hard-drinking Irish woman, Lady Boyle (Marilyn Leah), stops in each morning.
Colorful as his regulars are, they cannot stir Arthur to take an interest in his own life. With his sluggish demeanor, John Devennie as Arthur is a picture of depression. A draft evader (not a resister) from the Vietnam era, he dribbles out his long history of evasions and failures in a series of soliloquies (light design, Gilbert Todd).
Everything changes when Franco bounces into the coffee shop to demand employment. He is everything Arthur is not — young, African-American and full of energy. Played by Devin Oliver, Franco is like a stand-up comedian trying to get a rise out of the reluctant Arthur. It is a standard odd couple scenario.
But matters turn serious when Luther (M. Yamin Yurcaba) and Kevin (Patrick Martin) show up, a couple of gangsters from Franco’s own troubled past. It is Franco who now needs saving, giving Arthur the chance to face down old demons and revive his life. Action picks up, including a pretty good fight scene (fight choreographer Terri McIntyre).
I liked “Superior Donuts” but at the same time thought it was missing something at the writing or production level; I am not sure. Playwright Letts may not be ready for what he is trying to do here. Thematically, “Superior Donuts” is more ambitious than his earlier work, but it lacks dramatic pace, and the ideas behind the play seem to trump its theatrical intensity.
Even so, very little contemporary theater attempts the thematic scope of “Superior Donuts.” You wind up admiring Uptown, Chicago, and leave the theater feeling that Uptown (more largely, America) is a land of manageable suffering where, after all the pushing and shoving, everyone can muscle in and find a place at the table.
“Superior Donuts” will run through Sept. 29. Reservations available at 215-247-9913.