by Tracy Letts
directed by Randall Arney
through July 10
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts (August: Osage County) is heralded for sprinkling a very gritty situation with crisply funny dialogue and peppering it all with an unexpected twist or two. Prepare to be moved, entertained, exhilarated and maybe a little frightened with his West coast premiere of Superior Donuts now @ the Geffen Playhouse. Like a fine confection, the play is diligently prepared, ardently packaged, and turns out, in every way, superior.
Uptown, Chicago is uniquely blessed with an eclectic mix of past and present. A Starbuck's dominates one corner but an old shop Superior Donuts, despite its dilapidated condition and lack of customers stays open on the other. Its owner Arthur (Gary Cole), son of Polish immigrants and a Viet Nam draft dodger, lives in a world apart until he hires a hip young writer named Franco Wicks (Edi Gathegi). Wicks opens up Arthur, very reluctant to change, to new possibilities. After a break-in at the donut shop, a female cop (Mary Beth Fisher) hangs around and seems to have more than a casual interest in Arthur. When it becomes evident that Franco, in spite of his young age, has been involved with hoods in running bets and owes thousands of dollars, the impending trouble not only shakes up Franco, but more powerfully, Arthur.
Two things make Superior Donuts work brilliantly, its insistence on laughter and its astounding cast. Letts does not let a minute go by without infusing exchanges with abundant humor, that comes completely out of the reality of the characters and the moment. Franco's hip, energetic and totally NOW state of mind bumping up against Arthur's quiet, laid back almost drugged out daze is hilarious all by itself, with Franco referring to Arthur as "George Bush on Jeopardy". Yet beneath the facade, Arthur bears an intelligence, from reading books during his anti-war evasion, that matches Franco's beat by beat. And watching the two men strategize as played by Cole and Gathegi is a treat all by itself. Cole is magnificent in his intensity, perhaps his finest role to date. As he lights up a joint and has a conversation with himself, we learn about disjointed elements of his past - wife Magda, recently deceased but divorced from him years before, a daughter Joanie that he hasn't seen since her 13th birthday, a hard-working immigrant father who sweat to make the donut shop a success...a painful past and sickeningly dull present come to life in his every worn out gesture and disgruntled pause. It's a performance of great magnitude, modulation and wisdom matched only by that of Gathegi, whose vibrant dreams for a prosperous future get quickly crushed and all but obliterated. The chemistry between the two is electric. Also offering outstanding work are Ron Bottitta as Max, the Russian electronics expert who, like an unwanted disease refuses to go away, Mary Beth Fisher as hardened Officer Randy, Paul Dillon and Matt McTighe as the slimy racketeers out to destroy Franco and Kathryn Joosten as Lady, a crafty, quick-on-the-draw bag lady and alcoholic who frequents the donut shop. Damon Gupton as Trekkie fan Officer Bailey and Brian Abraham as Max's Russian nephew complete the winning ensemble.
Randall Arney offers sharp direction throughout. Ned Mochel is to be lauded as fight choreographer. John Arnone's set design of the shop is right-on perfect in its depiction of time stood still, as are Laura Bauer's costumes and Richard Woodbury's affecting sound design of the loud nearby elevated "L" train.