‘Superior Donuts’ offers plenty to chew on
Pulitzer-winning playwright Tracy Letts tries his hand at outright comedy in his fifth play, now at the Arden.
By Naila Francis
It may boast a lighter touch, with even a hint of nostalgic sweetness.
But the Tracy Letts that audiences have come to embrace — the one so adept at spinning deeply dysfunctional and disturbing tales such as “Bug,” “Killer Joe” and “August: Osage County” — is still a strong presence in “Superior Donuts.”
There may be no explosive descent into madness or brutal contemplation of violence. And after all the vitriol and wrenching tragedy of “August,” the characters here may seem almost gentle in comparison. But “Superior Donuts,” the fifth offering from the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning playwright, which runs through April 3 at the Arden Theatre Company, explores the same themes that Letts has always been drawn to.
“In all fairness, this was the play after ‘August: Osage County,’ and people had a certain expectation of what that was going to be,” says Edward Sobel, associate artistic director at the Arden. “Then when they were confronted with a play that was first of all a comedy, second of all a workplace comedy, there was a sense of some disappointment in that this was not a play that was going after anything big, when actually the ideas in this play and the things that Tracy is asking us to consider are just as strong and just as important as ‘August: Osage County.’ They’re just coming in a different wrapper.”
“Superior Donuts” is set in Chicago — Letts’ hometown of the moment — where aging hippie and draft-dodger Arthur Przybyszewski (Craig Spidle) runs the small bakery opened by his father, a Polish immigrant, when he was still a boy. Lonely, depressed and haunted by a past that includes a failed marriage, Arthur is nonetheless content to drift along in the shadows of his life until Franco Wicks (James William Ijames), a brash and literate 21-year-old African-American, convinces him that he would make his perfect assistant. As the unlikely hire begins refurbishing the doughnut shop, located in a struggling Uptown neighborhood slow to gentrification, his presence slowly begins to invigorate Arthur as well. But while this dynamic may initially feel clichd and dated, “Donuts” delves deeper.
“The play is about a number of things, but for me, it’s really about whether or not people, when faced with difficult circumstances or difficult events, … we choose to isolate ourselves or choose to reach out to other people,” says Sobel, who, as the former director of new play development at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, oversaw the development of “August: Osage County” and served as dramaturge for its acclaimed Broadway run, as well as the Chicago and Broadway productions of “Superior Donuts.”
“To me, there’s a very strong thread of a sense of community running in this play. People are faced with the choice of are we going to acknowledge that we’re different and further acknowledge that we have things to offer each other. … The play is really looking at how does a community respond when it’s faced with change and when it’s faced with difficulty.”
In directing this production, Sobel took into consideration previous critical reviews, several of which compared “Donuts” to the 1970s sitcoms of Norman Lear. He decided to change the setting from a proscenium configuration, with the exact replica of a doughnut shop, to a three-quarter thrust stage that extends into the audience.
“I’m trying to ask the audience to see the play not so much as a slice of life or as a sitcom but as something that is a bit more like a fable,” he says. “By putting it in three quarters, everybody is seeing something a little bit different, and you’re also more aware of your fellow audience members. My hope is that this allows people to feel a connection as opposed to a disassociation with what they’re seeing.
“Obviously, we have to have certain things — doughnuts and coffee and a counter and cash register and things like that. I tried to have these things be as real as they need to be to do the play but also to allow the rest of the set to take on a slightly more abstractive, emotive and metaphorical quality.”
For Ijames, who last appeared in the Arden’s production of “Romeo and Juliet,” the play echoes some of his own experience leaving his native North Carolina for Philadelphia. His character’s bright-eyed idealism may be in sharp contrast to Arthur’s own shuttered existence, but somehow they begin to bridge that divide.
“What I think is most striking for me about the play is the sense of one having a family of their choice. Franco chooses Arthur as a paternal figure. He builds family and this doughnut shop becomes a little bit of a home, even though he has a family of his own that he loves,” says Ijames. “Moving to Philadelphia, I’ve been able to build family here and with some people have very strong relationships that are just as important as my actual family.”
His character, an aspiring novelist who began working on his first book at age 14, allows Letts to explore a variation on the theme of the American dream.
“Imbedded in ‘August: Osage County’ is what happens to the American dream when it becomes distorted. In ‘Superior Donuts,’ we’re looking at what was the promise of the liberalism of the 1960s as embodied by Arthur and what happened to that idea of inclusiveness and commitment to wide democratic principles,” says Sobel. “What happens when that promise and those notions come up against present circumstances? Franco, he aspires to the American dream. … The question is, how does that sense of entrepreneurial spirit line up with the ideas of inclusiveness and equal opportunity and the way in which class and class mobility or lack thereof defines how we relate to each other.”
As usual, Letts handles such issues with pathos and deft humor, some of it subtle, some over the top and much of it drawn from the excruciatingly human. His characters, notes Sobel, want to do the right thing but usually end up hurting each other when their own needs conflict with that impulse.
“These are just real people in real circumstances and real humor comes from that because it’s genuine,” says Brian Anthony Wilson, a Cherry Hill resident starring in the role of beat cop Officer James Bailey.
His character says only one or two lines at a time but he notes those few words carry significant weight — a nod to Letts’ gift for dialogue.
“He also writes these gorgeous monologues,” says Wilson. “He doesn’t waste words, and when he writes a lot of words, he writes them beautifully.”
“Donuts” also highlights Letts’ facility with compelling characters, a strength many have attributed to his own background as an actor.
“He really has a way with spinning stories through character, which is an actor’s dream, to be doing a play where so much of the story is wrapped up inside of the people versus the events,” says Ijames. “There are definitely a lot of events in this play, but the characters are very well drawn and beautiful even in their being fractured or imperfect.”
– The Bucks County Courier Times and The Intelligencer