Purple Rose Theatre's 'Superior Donuts' benefits from superior cast
Photo by Sean Carter Photography
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Tracy Letts, when writing his comedy “Superior Donuts” (now playing at Chelsea's Purple Rose Theatre), clearly faced a paradox that has stymied many a playwright and screenwriter that came before him: when you have a man-of-few-words main character that struggles to connect with others, you can’t easily fill in his backstory through dialogue because, well, he’s simply unable to open up.
In the case of “Donuts,” the man in question is Arthur Przybyszewski (played by “Emergency!” star Randolph Mantooth), an aging, emotionally detached owner of a dilapidated doughnut shop in Chicago. When an energetic, fast-talking young black man named Franco (Brian Marable) enters the store and talks himself into a job, an unlikely, meaningful friendship between the two men slowly develops.
But how does the playwright solve the riddle of emotionally investing us in a character that’s so guarded? Letts has Arthur address the audience in a series of short monologues that fill in important narrative holes while also providing him with more depth. Unfortunately, the device feels clunky - both in terms of transitioning into and out of the speeches, and using a heavy-handed backdrop of piano music and dramatic lighting.
For the majority of the play, however, when Letts’ characters simply talk with each other, “Donuts” comes alive with wit, personality, and comic friction - in part because director Guy Sanville’s casting choices are impeccable.
Though some may buy tickets to “Donuts” to see “Emergency!”’s Johnny Gage close up, Mantooth vanishes so completely into his role that any concerns regarding star-struck distraction dissipate immediately. He uses Arthur’s dryness to terrific comic effect, and as Arthur takes baby steps toward change, Mantooth provides the character with a likable dignity.
Marable, meanwhile, rides the far more broad and erratic waves of Franco’s dialogue with a pitch-perfect sense of restraint. Franco is a role that could easily be overplayed, but Marable wisely keeps Franco grounded, so that the character earns the audience’s laughs, respect and sympathy.
In smaller roles, David Daoust, as the bigoted Russian owner of the DVD store next door, brings great energy to every scene he’s in; Michelle Mountain and Lynch Travis are marvelous as quirky police partners who constantly bicker; and Sandy Ryder imbues homeless Lady with a charming, guileless sense of spunk that’s rendered all the more heartbreaking when we learn of the personal tragedies she’s endured.
Bartley Bauer’s set is a knockout, right down to its black and white checkered floor. Danna Segrest’s props complete the no-frills doughnut diner illusion at the micro and macro level. Shelby Newport designed the costumes (I only did a double take when Franco tells Arthur, who’s wearing a flannel button-down, that he should wear a shirt that buttons down the front); Dana White designed the show’s lighting; and Tom Whalen designed the production’s sound.
On opening night, a fight scene that comes near the end of the two-hour production looked tentative, and thus rang slightly hollow; but more importantly, the play’s quiet, meaningful (and yes, sweet) final moment packed one heck of a wallop - which indicates to me that what’s most substantive in “Donuts” is likely to not just go down easy, but stay with you for a while, too.