'Superior Donuts' is fresh, satisfying treat

By Judith Cookis Rubens

Superior Donuts isn't bustling with hipsters and their laptops or grande mocha-chinos, like nearby Starbucks. In fact, the deteriorating Uptown Chicago donut shop in Tracy Letts' compelling comedy isn't even open some days.

Owner Arthur Przybyszewski, an aging hippie beat down by life, often closes early to get high and tune out. Running the family shop, started by his Polish immigrant father, is not high on his priority list. He's so tuned out that he barely notices when his store gets vandalized one morning.

Right about then, he meets Franco Wicks (Anthony J. Hamilton), a 21-year-old black man, hustling for a job. First bewildered, then amused by Franco's bravado and smarts, Arthur (Michael Ray Helms) takes a chance on the kid. He slowly lets him in - something he hasn't done with anyone in years.

Franco is brimming with ideas to make the donut shop successful. We get the feeling that Franco, with all his charisma, would be successful at anything. He urges Arthur to spruce up the place, add music, maybe some poetry readings, even - gasp - heart-healthy alternatives to donuts. The two begin an unlikely friendship, which is put to the test early on by Franco's funny "racist test" where he goads Arthur, for a wager, to quickly name 10 black poets as proof the aging white man is not a racist.

Farmers Alley delivers the Michigan premiere of "Superior Donuts," Tony Award-winning playwright Letts' dramedy. Director Adam Weiner's production cooks up a delightful mix of smart humor, social commentary and heartfelt dramatic twists. Set in an ailing Chicago neighborhood in 2009-2010, there are undercurrents of financial pressure, racial tension, and political divide, but the two main characters seem to be struggling more with the need to make a mark on the world.

The show has been compared to '70s Norman Lear sitcoms, but at its core, it's a fresh update on the American Dream. Especially what it takes to go after the dream.

To Arthur, realizing a dream takes courage, something we see him seriously lacking. He doesn't even have the guts to ask out an obviously interested lady cop (Gina Maria Chimner). Later, in a series of soliloquies, we learn why he's so disconnected, dating back to his draft-dodging past, a conflicted father relationship, a divorce and estrangement from his daughter. The slowly delivered backstory needs to be there, but the information sometimes feels disruptive, breaking up the laughs and fun sparring between colorful characters.

Franco, by contrast, seems to have courage to spare, but things aren't always what they seem. The boy has penned "the great American novel" in a dozen bound notebooks, and he knows it's his ticket. Arthur, though impressed with the book's content, has seen too many dreams dashed to give the poor kid much hope.

On opening night, actors took a few moments to find the right pacing, but soon settled in, continuing into the powerful second act.

WMU student Hamilton gives a star-making turn as Franco, constantly in motion, delivering big laughs and a playful energy. Helms makes us feel Arthur's hopelessness, yet gives us just enough of the fighting spirit we know is lurking there. The two leads complement each other nicely, and they are supported by a winning cast.

Leading the pack of donut shop regulars are Allison L. Crockett as Lady, a sometimes-sober bag lady; Ronald L. Centers as a not-always-so-tough bookie; Jason Grubbe as Max, a brash Russian shop owner next door; and Ron Ware, as neighborhood cop and Trekkie fan James.

W. Douglas Blickle's set imagines a perfectly worn-out Chicago shop, authentic down to the perceived chill in the air and noisy El train in the background.

Though it doesn't seem like it at first, there's a lot going on at Superior Donuts. And it has nothing to do with coffee and fried dough.


'Superior Donuts'

Farmers Alley Theatre, 221 Farmers Alley, Kalamazoo. Thursday-Sunday through Feb. 26. $21-25. 269-343-2727. http://www.farmersalleytheatre.com

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