Wednesday, February 12, 2014
Theater review: Superior Donuts in Lewisville is smart and consistent
Bonus: They have actual doughnuts at intermission.
LEWISVILLE I get a little excited when I think about doughnuts. My car often drives itself to my favorite doughnut shop, Jenny’s, and I find myself conjuring caloric justification as I plop warm, doughy holes of sugary greatness into my mouth. The word “doughnut” evokes uniquely American imagery, from Homer Simpson to Fred the Baker, star of Dunkin’ Donuts’ “Time to make the donuts” campaign. With Superior Donuts, writer Tracy Letts adds another layer to that evocative imagery, for I will henceforth think of his play when I stop in at Jenny’s.
Set in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood in the late 2000’s, Superior Donuts focuses on the owner of the establishment, Arthur Przybyszewski, and a menagerie of employees, neighbors and customers. Arthur inherited the shop from his Polish immigrant parents decades before, and his apathy is palpable; he accepts the vandalism of his shop in the opening scene with little more than a shrug. His beleaguered appearance contributes to his overall indifference, suggesting his “lucky” jeans might be less than so. Enter a Russian shopkeeper, an idealistic writer, two beat cops, a homeless woman and a couple of thuggish heavies for good measure, and you’ve got the makings of the next Great American Novel. But that comes later.
The last show I saw at Greater Lewisville Community Theatre was a musical with about 80 (it seemed) cast members, so it was nice to sit back and enjoy the intimate space without set changes or epic production numbers. All of the action took place inside Superior Donuts, and the set was appropriately reflective of that. Set Designer Abby Kipp chose Day-Glo orange for the shop’s interior walls, and a harlequin-set black and white tile pattern on the floor. The combination of the two were unsettling at times, though so was the story. A lovely mid-twentieth century Philco refrigerator peeked out from the recessed kitchen area, and a couple of stout bakery display cases showcased the play’s tasty co-stars. A number of counter-height stools stood sentry in front of the display cases, and a couple of cafe table and chairs sets took up residence downstage.
The most complex portion of the set was the stage left wall that jutted out towards the audience at an almost quadrilateral angle. Two windows and a glass-paneled door were fixed inside the angled wall, and the area beyond the glass was painted to resemble a street exterior. In the opening scene, it was clear that the up left window was vandalized and shattered, though mini blinds were lowered soon after to conceal the damage. When Arthur raised the mini blinds the following day, the shattered window was covered with a board. Clever.
Director Ashley H. White made several such choices that paid off in shares of believability. Each time the door opened or closed, the audience heard a chilly, whooshing sound effect. Kudos to Sound Designer Alex Krus for those well-timed whooshes, as they were integral in reminding everyone we were in the Windy City. Similarly, thunderstorms were on the menu during the play’s dramatic final scene, and when Luther entered the doughnut shop, he was appropriately dotted with droplets of water.
Speaking of the gastrointestinally-challenged Luther, Rick Powers delivered a quiet, almost reverent performance as the loan shark who also managed to instill fear and loathing in his debtors with a single look, or a thinly-veiled threat. His performance built during the course of the action until it finally exploded in the blistering denouement with Arthur. Powers’ characterization didn’t rely on brass knuckles or flying spittle, or other stereotypes associated with members of his alter ego’s tribe, which was refreshing. Conversely, as his henchman Kevin, Keith LaCour’s twitchy, weight-shifting, tongue-thrusting portrayal was over played at every turn.
Amber Quinn delivered a lovely, genuine performance as Lady Boyle, the tender but batty homeless woman who regularly patronizes Superior Donuts. Quinn’s ritualistic mannerisms while preparing to eat her donut were endearing and well timed, and it was apparent that the routine of readying the doughnut was more important than its actual consumption. Her unkempt hair and grimy, mismatched clothing (designed by Lindsey Humphries) were indicative of her mental state and situation as the story revealed her personal tragedy.
As the beat cops who investigate the vandalism of Arthur’s store, Solomon Abah and Kelly Moore Clarkson were a believable duo, even if their characters were written without substantial depth. Abah’s rather rote performance didn’t offer much backbone, though his delivery and costuming did garner a few laughs. As Randy, Arthur’s would be love interest, Clarkson had several opportunities to foster and birth many of the show’s comedic highlights. However, many of those moments passed as awkward instead of funny. When Arthur and Randy are alone in the shop and actually try to hold a conversation, Clarkson’s overworked attempts at physical humor (thrusting out her chest as Arthur draws nearer, looking shyly away from Arthur after she said something embarrassing, etc.) fell flat.
Jerome Stein, however, delivered a strong, dimensional performance as Max Tarasov, Arthur’s neighbor-in-retail. I thoroughly enjoyed his leisure suited, bigoted, vodka-swilling embodiment! Stein’s slighter stature played well when considered against the backdrop of his brash nature, especially when doling out demands and instructions to his comrade Kiril, played by Patrick H. Douglass. Further, Stein’s Russian accent was easy to listen to and understand.
As the patriarch of this little donut family, Steve Schreur’s portrayal of Arthur was filled with inconsistencies. Though Arthur was obviously written with a degree of aloofness, Schreur seemed barely awake during many of his exchanges. While most of his interactions with other characters lacked chemistry or spark, Schreur was at his best when he delivered his monologues directly to the audience. I was able to draw similarities between Arthur’s lone wolf world view and Schreur’s independent performance, but I longed for more connective tissue.
J.R. Bradford delivered the show’s finest performance as Franco Wicks. Franco is full of youthful idealism, which might be just the key to opening Arthur’s eyes to life’s possibilities. Bradford was energetic and upbeat and nearly unflappable, a necessary counterpoint to Arthur’s “seen it all” attitude. As Franco’s gifts and weaknesses are revealed, Bradford effortlessly maintained a pace appropriate to the given action. My favorite scene was when Arthur admitted he’d read Franco’s “Great American Novel.” The pure joy Bradford conveyed at the notion that someone actually took the time to acknowledge his work was captivating, as were the questions and commentary that poured forth as a result.
While some of the performances lacked authenticity, the technical aspects of Superior Donuts were on point. In that regard, I would be remiss in neglecting the fight choreography near the end of the show. It’s difficult to plot a physical altercation on stage, as it can’t be filmed with multiple camera angles or computer-aided imagery. And this fight was long. While not every punch and kick was landed with perfect accuracy, the overall feel of the fight was authentic and cringe-inducing.
I certainly wouldn’t classify Superior Donuts as an outright comedy but there were a number of laugh-out-loud moments. The story kept my attention all on its own, and I was pleased with a handful of smart, consistent performances. If those endorsements aren’t resounding enough, there were also actual doughnuts at intermission!
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