The opening of Capital Repertory Theatre’s Superior Donuts is the perfect metaphor for the state America is in today. The production begins in the rundown interior of missing owner Arthur Przybyszewski’s (George Tynan Crowley) 60-year-old Chicago donut shop. The glass door has been broken, the two tables, four chairs and serving have been tipped over, and someone has painted “PUSSY” in large scarlet letters behind the empty donut counter. The coffee maker is empty. A tiny, balding, oily man in a track suit (Yury Tsykun) stands by the broken glass door and repeats to Officers Randy Osteen (Lee Roy Rodgers) and James Bailey (Phil McGlaston), “A real fucking shame, you know,” in a thick Eastern European accent.
By Superior Donuts’ conclusion, the shop will be cleaned, well-lit, made whole, and sold to the man in the track suit, Max Tarasov, a recent Russian émigré, who plans to tear it all down to build his American-Russian dream, a blocklong electronics store that will out-compete the big-box stores because “I’ll offer something Best Buy will never offer: the personal touch, and Croatian porn.” You don’t argue with a job creator, especially one with pretty good comedic timing.
The intervening two and a half hours of Superior Donuts are filled with a few engaging character studies, many hearty chuckles from the audience, a couple of head-numbing scenes that sit like stale donuts, an amusingly klutzy stagefight worthy of the Keystone Cops, and some of the finest profanity from a Chicago playwright not named Mamet. Second City dramatists sling obscenities like dolphins swim: in fast, furious, acrobatic spurts.
Playwright Tracy Letts creates Superior Donuts (his first play after the tough-to-follow 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning August: Osage County) around the intimacies and secrets of the hardscrabble characters who come and go through the small urban store. The dingy intimacy of the donut shop allows a fully engaged Crowley to gradually infuse life back into his depressed Arthur, whose wispy grey ponytail seems to be the only thing holding him together. Crowley has to juggle early scenes where Arthur is barely responding to the cops sent to investigate the break-in vandalism, especially the comely, interested, and well-named Officer Randy: “This ain’t a ‘hate crime’ cause ‘pussies’ ain’t a social group,” she helpfully explains to the stunned Arthur, whose story tumbles out in direct addresses to the audience in the exact, intimate, often painful details of memory.
While the shop “Superior Donuts” allows the comedic characters to stop by for an occasional donut and a punchline, Arthur has to stay, exploring and exposing his soul in Superior Donuts, and Crowley’s artistry makes it time well-spent.
But at its heart, Superior Donuts is a two-character play, and when hungry-for-work, 21-year-old African-American Franco Wicks (Brooks Brantly) enters midway through Act 1, the play’s pulse quickens. Living up fully to his family motto—“never stop moving”—Brantly’s Franco is all-American bunk, funk, and verbal junk, conducting his own job interview with Arthur, hiring himself, negotiating his pay, benefits, profit-sharing, and planning for the future of this “coffee house,” all within minutes of closing the busted glass door.
So it’s perfectly plausible that Franco has written “the Great American Novel: America Will Be,” as he tells Arthur, collected in a dozen notebooks of various sizes, held together by rubber bands, and which Franco never lets out of his hands (Superior Donuts is filled with apt metaphors). And it makes sense that Franco lets Arthur read America Will Be (titled after a Langston Hughes poem) only after losing a bet that Arthur can’t name 10 African-American poets (one of the many times spontaneous applause fills the theater), and it’s wholly believable that Arthur does think American Will Be “is a Great American Novel.” When the few head-numbing scenes are done sucking the air from the play, the duo readily get back to the play’s heart.
Perfectly, Superior Donuts ends, not with the selling of Arthur’s shop to Max, but with a scene of hope. For as Franco perfectly told Arthur, “Donuts are not your life; donuts are no one’s life. Your life’s your life. . . . That’s what friends do: share their stories.” Arthur takes pen in hand to write and say “America Will Be” just before the final blackout. It’s a great work of art that ends with hope for the future, and the few “fuck yous” aimed at Starbucks along the way aren’t too shabby, either.