(l)Lance Gardner as Franco in the regional premiere of SUPERIOR DONUTS at TheatreWorks.

Below (l-r) Arthur Przybyszewski (Howard Swain), Max Tarasov (Søren Oliver), Randy Osteen (Julia Brothers), and Lady Boyle (Joan Mankin) in the regional premiere of SUPERIOR DONUTS at TheatreWorks. Photo Credits: Tracy Martin

SUPERIOR DONUTS by Tracy Letts, directed by Leslie Martinson. TheatreWorks at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. (650) 463-1960 or October 6-31, 2010


TheatreWorks has grabbed some of the best actors in the Bay Area to populate the regional premiere of Tracy Letts’ Superior Donuts, a somewhat semiautobiographical play. Although Letts won the Pulitzer Prize for his truly autobiographical play, August: Osage County, the present play takes us to Chicago where he has spent most of his adult life and became a member of the internationally famous Steppenwolf Theatre Company. A few years ago, Marin Theatre Company mounted a blockbuster version of Killer Joe, written by Letts, and Howard Swain did a great job in a pivotal supporting role of husband /father to the major characters. This time Swain has the major role of a first generation Polish American with the improbable name of Arthur Przybyszewski the owner of a run down North Side Chicago donut shop named, of course, Superior Donuts, that has been in his family for 60 years. Swain nails the role.

Into the shop comes Franco Wicks (Lance Gardner) an intelligent, exuberant black youth looking for a job. Wicks comes in as a ball of fire and is an immediate hit with the audience but his grandiose ideas to convert the shop into a intellectual coffee shop conflicts with the disillusioned Arthur who eventually capitulates giving Franco the job. At the start of the play, person(s) unknown have trashed the shop and two local friendly cops, Randy (Julie Brothers) and James (Michael J. Ashberry) are there to investigate. Max Tarasov (Soren Oliver) a Russian immigrant owns DVD store next door and offers to buy Arthur out. Then there is Lady (Joan Mankin) as recovering alcoholic bag lady that comes in daily for her free “fix” of coffee and donuts.

Letts’ play construction is dependent on Arthur breaking the fourth wall to fill in the background of his troubled life, give historical context to the play and add verisimilitude to his complex character. Do not expect the violence of Killer Joe or the paranoia of Bug that are the playwright’s trademark style. This play ends on a hopeful note but not as cataclysmic as a mythical Phoenix rising out of its ashes. There is off stage violence and an onstage fight in which initial gasps change to cheers from the audience as well as the onstage characters.

It is truly an ensemble performance with Gardner and Swain giving superior performances as a bond of friendship slowly and inexorably is forged. Gardner’s exuberance is infectious and his conveyance of the hope within despair shines through. The understated portrayal by ever-professional Swain reflects Arthur’s troubled past and you can feel the hurt outlined in his monologs. He is a man with a love/hate relationship with his dead father, a failure as husband and father to his daughter and tentatively reaching out for companionship.

Humor abounds and of the supporting cast, Soren Oliver has the greatest chance to emote and he makes his racists comments stated without rancor ring true only as statements of fact. Joan Mankin is hilarious as Lady and her presence on stage demands the audience’s attention. Julie Brothers as Randy, who has the hots for Arthur, gives a rendition that is reminiscent of the Oscar winning performance of Frances McDormand in the movie Fargo. , , and that’s good. Michael J. Asberry does not have an opportunity to display his ability in the unwritten role of a caring black cop.

There has to be bad guys in any Tracy Letts play and Gabe Marin as Luther Flynn, a hardnosed Irish bookie/loan shark and his henchman Kevin Magee (Elias Escobedo), plays them. There is lack of menace in Marin’s performance but Ecobedo, with just a few lines and body language make Kevin someone you wouldn’t want to meet in an alley.

Leslie Martinson moves the play with precision and Steven B. Mannshardt’s lighting and Jeff Mockus’s sound design enhance Tom Langguth’s perfect atmospheric set. Running time is about 2 hours and 10 minutes with intermission and it should not be missed.

Kedar K. Adour, MD

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