Sunday, October 10, 2010

"Superior Donuts": ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG baub

Tom Langguth's set just made me hungry. "Superior Donuts" is set in a North Side Chicago donut shop, and though it's run down and has seen better days -- and the donuts, sadly, are props -- you still can't deny the staying power of sugar and grease when they are combined with a love story or two.

There are at least two love stories, maybe even three. The central relationship in Tracy Letts' 2006 play is between Arthur (Howard Swain), the owner of the shop that was opened decades earlier by his Polish immigrant father, and Franco (Lance Gardner), a young black man from the neighborhood who needs a job, and whose ebullient personality is the engine for Arthur's ultimate awakening.

Then we have Randy, the Chicago lady cop, who is trying hard to attract Arthur's attention, but this is a far harder task than fighting crime in the streets.

But ultimately what the playwright is talking about is Chicago -- the hog butcher of the world and collector of crazy accents. We've got an Irish cop, a black cop (Michael J. Asberry), Lady the homeless drunk (Joan Mankin) who comes in every morning for free coffee and a donut, Max (Soren Oliver), the Russian video store owner next door who is trying to buy Arthur's shop, Luther Flynn (Gabriel Marin) the kindly mobster into whose debt young Franco has fallen -- and each character, Arthur included, are trying to define their stance, to scratch out their chunk of Chicago, the address they've been given where the American Dream lives.

Franco, by the way, has also written the Great American Novel.

Leslie Martinson's direction is as fast-paced as the repartee between the characters, but she gives us plenty of room to think about it all. The characters have lives outside the donut shop but here is where they interact.

If there's a problem it's not with the production, but with the show itself. Tracy Letts is a superstar now (after winning a Pulitzer for August: Osage County, as well as writing many wonderful and crazy shows (Bug, Killer Joe and Man from Nebraska) with which Bay Area audiences are familiar. So maybe that's the problem -- we expect more now. "Superior Donuts" is pleasing but not all that memorable. For this viewer, the theatrical trick of having Arthur leave character periodically to face the audience and talk about his back story, injures the show's rhythm. Every time he talks to us, we wonder why he's not in his back room making more donuts.

So August: Osage County it's not. But it's still superior and quite funny. The mystery is why Theaterworks doesn't sell donuts at intermission, instead of those sorry cookies.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG baub

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Superior Donuts" Three Stars with a BANGLE of PRAISE and a bauble of despair. The acting is really good, especially the two leads Swain and Gardner. We expect nothing less out of Howard Swain but Lance Gardner is a revelation. Recently seen in "Auctioning the Ainsleys" (you can read the SF Theater Blog review of "Auctioning the Ainsleys" here), Gardner's role here is equally strong but a lot more fun.

The BANGLE of PRAISE is for the host of wonderful lines, including Arthur's defense of a life with a little comfort in it, and Max's definition of his success in the video business: "The personal touch. And Croatian pornography."

"Superior Donuts"
Mountain View Center for Performing Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Through October 31

Photos by Mark Kitaoka and Tracy Martin

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