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By Donald V. Calamia
Posted: Sept. 29, 2012 at 6:10 p.m.
In a decaying uptown Chicago neighborhood sits a small business that in today's world of Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts is considered an anachronism: the family-owned neighborhood donut shop. (Remember those?) Yet even as Arthur Przybyszewski's Superior Donuts teeters on the verge of extinction, a very human and timeless drama unfolds within its walls. And in the hands of director Guy Sanville and his excellent cast, "Superior Donuts" at The Purple Rose Theatre becomes a sweet and delectable treat indeed.
Arthur's donut shop, which was opened in the early 1950s by his Polish-immigrant father, has seen better times – partly because of the ever-increasing crime in the neighborhood, the new Starbuck's that opened recently across the street, and neglect by its owner. Although Arthur (Randolph Mantooth) has been pestered to sell his shop by his next door neighbor, Russian immigrant Max Tarasov (David Daoust) who would love to expand his own store, the answer has always been an emphatic "no." Why that's so isn't immediately clear, as his only customers seem to be two police officers, a neighborhood alcoholic and very few others.
Then in walks Franco Wicks (Brian Marable), a whirlwind of energy who is looking for a job while on a break from college. Despite the obvious fact that Arthur and Franco are polar opposites – Franco is young, black, outgoing, inquisitive, and full of hopes and dreams; the near-60 Arthur is none of those – Franco's persistence finally wins out, and he becomes the shop's only employee.
Their relationship starts out somewhat strained – Franco is far to nosy for Arthur's taste – but Franco's handwritten novel that Arthur reads and critiques becomes the focal point through which the two begin to see each other in a different light. But soon, Franco's past catches up with him, which threatens to destroy the bright future that seems ahead of him.
With "Superior Donuts," author Tracy Letts has crafted an intriguing, but somewhat formulaic comedy-drama about relationships, race and the potentials for change – and how our past helps shape who we are today (but not necessarily for tomorrow). With little action to keep the audience's attention – especially in the first act – Letts instead keeps us riveted through honest dialogue and a stable of characters (quirky and otherwise) we might meet in an ethnically diverse or economically challenged community.
But the playwright has also written himself into somewhat of a corner. How, as an author, do you provide the audience with the necessary background information they need to know if your primary character refuses to talk about his past? And there's no character in the story who can help fill in those missing blanks? So with "Superior Donuts," Letts opts to mix elements of a memory play into the flow of the story, during which Arthur steps out of the action and wistfully recalls important elements of his past. Such intrusions – especially its first occurrence – can be somewhat jarring. Expert transitions, though, by Sanville and lighting designer Dana White keep the disruptions in storytelling styles from distracting from the overall enjoyment of the production.
And there is much to enjoy and savor here.
In recent interviews, director Sanville has said that upon reading the script, his first thought for the role of Arthur was Mantooth, who played Los Angeles County Fire Department paramedic Johnny Gage in the long-running 1970s NBC medical drama, "Emergency!". (The two had worked together in 2003 when The Purple Rose took its production of "Rain Dance" to Broadway.) Although the reason many not have been obvious to most of us, Sanville's instincts are usually spot on – and that's certainly the case with Mantooth's performance.
As written, Arthur is a 1960s' hippy and draft evader who feels a responsibility to keep the family business operating long after the death of his parents. Comfortable in hole-filled jeans and a period-defining pony tail, his life has been filled with indecision, quiet regret and "friends" he's kept at arms length. In Mantooth's expert hands, he's a fully realized character that is beautifully underplayed for maximum impact. With little more than an almost-too-quiet line delivery and a haunting, beaten-down expression and posture, much about Arthur is vividly conveyed, leaving the audience little choice but to share his pain.
In stark contrast is the bombastic Marable, who storms into the donut shop and never loses steam. That's particularly true of the show's final and quieter moments – which I won't reveal here – during which his tight focus and carefully crafted facial expressions reveal everything we need to know about what's going through his head at that specific moment.
And in those concluding minutes, Mantooth and Marable serve the most emotional and satisfying experience of the evening, which resulted in plenty of sniffling heard throughout the audience on opening night.
Fine support is provided by the remainder of the cast.
Chief among the standouts is Daoust, whose Russian is flawless, and who lights up the stage with every appearance. (An early monologue describing recent crime in the neighborhood is priceless. And the stark contrast of a later appearance shows Daoust's skill at creating a fully believable character.)
Alex Leydenfrost as loan shark Luther Flynn and Ryan Carlson as Kevin Magee (his bigger-than-his-britches flunky) serve their characters well, as do Michelle Mountain and Lynch R. Travis as Officers Randy Osteen and James Bailey.
Two other actors, though, deserve special attention.
Sandy Ryder charms the audience as Lady Boyle, a local alcoholic (and likely crazy street person) who Arthur supports with free donuts. Although first viewed as simply a character who adds color and humor to the proceedings, her reason to be in the script becomes apparent in the second act – and Ryder nails the role and all its complexities.
And finally, when the show's remaining actor made his first appearance, a handful of nameless local theater critics didn't have a clue who it was. The already-handsome, locally well-known actor is now blond, buff, tattooed and filled with attitude – and with likely the fewest lines he's ever had to learn (most of which are in Russian), Michael Brian Ogden's Kiril Ivakin is already among the most memorable characters seen so far this season.
All of the production's technical elements contribute to its overall high quality – a Purple Rose tradition. One, though, got me thinking after I left the theater.
Although not a living, breathing person, the show's most obvious character – the one that establishes the tone from the moment the audience enters the theater – is the set by Bartley H. Bauer. A more accurate recreation of an old-fashioned donut shop would be tough to find – so much so, I had a hankering for a donut only minutes after taking my seat. And almost two hours later, my hunger was satisfied – not by a donut, but by a theatrical confection that will stay with me far longer.
SHOW DETAILS: "Superior Donuts" continues at The Purple Rose Theatre Company, 137 Park St., Chelsea, Wednesday-Sunday through Dec. 15; no performance Thanksgiving Day. Running time: approximately 2 hours. Tickets: $18.50 - $42. For information: 734-433-7673 or www.purplerosetheatre.org.
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