It takes until the second act to recognize how well and thoroughly Tracey Letts has written Superior Donuts when you see it at Pittsburgh Public Theater. But it takes only a few minutes after the performance starts to realize that director Ted Pappas and his superior cast make if truthful, engaging and frequently funny.
Much of the first act seems spent on introducing colorful, interesting and well-developed characters who say lots of things, sometimes salty, bound to make you laugh and to like them. But not much else. However when that first hour ends, you have hints that more serious and important developments lie in wait. The next hour delivers surprises, tensions, deeper meaning and warm tenderness.
It’s set in a small donut shop in an almost -transitioning Chicago neighborhood around the beginning of 2010. The shop is a family business run by one-time hippie, Polish-American Arthur Przybyzewski whose personal history includes dodging the draft during the Vietnam War and whose overall approach to life is ruled by being so laid back as to almost lie down and accept whatever falls. Such perceptive writing by Tracy Letts also sets up the possibility of affirmative action and transformation which is provoked by his new hire for the shop, 21 year black Franco Wicks. Franco has all kinds of ideas to make the shop adapt to new times and prosper. Here too Letts has solidly evoked an equally unpredictable and engaging character. As it turns out, Wicks is dangerously in debt to a potentially vicious crook, Luther Flynn. Other significant characters include Max Tarasov, a Russian who owns an adjacent store and hopes to expand it as well as regularly -appearing police woman Randy to whom Arthur is attracted.
In Superior Donuts, Tracy Letts has set up a number of self-revealing soliloquies by Arthur, well-staged by Ted Pappas, with a solo spotlight on Arthur so that other less significant action on stage does not distract. Moreover Pappas superbly paces the early scenes, never rushing things, keeping his actors genuine while saying many amusing things. But when the second act emerges, Pappas and his cast make it all dynamic and vivid. If you look thoroughly at the program book you’ll notice that there is fight direction by Randy Kovitz. And, even though you may know that a fight is coming and that it is theatre and not reality, by that time, if you are as engaged in the story and the people, as I was, you may really get anxious. I did. Credit Pappas and his cast.
CMU grad Anderson Matthews plays Arthur with wonderful naturalness and depth. As Franco, Brandon Gill marvelously conveys his charm and vitality. The Russian shopkeeper Max is equally vigorously and appealingly interpreted by Donald Corren. They stand out in a fine ensemble in which every other role gets equal definition and credibility. Pittsburgh’s Wali Jamal and Sharon Brady are among them as is thoroughly polished Daryll Heysham who has been in many recent local productions. Another out-of-town actor, David Agranov also graduated from CMU.
You can get more out of the experience by reading Margie Romero’s excellent, informative and useful program notes about Chicago and about the 1968 war resistance movement and the events at the Democratic Party’s national convention in that city.
After writing the above, I looked on-line at other reviews including some from New York, most of which, although finding the play skillful, compare it to predictable TV situation comedies. That is not my reaction. I find the whole concept and how it’s done superior in every way.
Superior Donuts continues through May 15 at Pittsburgh Public Theater, downtown. Tickets and info at 412/316.1600 or www.ppt.org