Posted by: strugglesome | March 13, 2011

Just Desserts: The Arden Theater’s Superior Donuts

Food is a funny thing. We tend to assume that certain food which we associate so closely with various cultures have always been connected with those cultures, when in fact this is often a recent relationship. For example, Italy only learned about this pasta business after Marco Polo took a cooking class on vacation in the orient and tomatoes came directly from the exotic New World, making that delicious Pasta Puttanesca you recently enjoyed a relative newcomer to the gastronomic scene. And while we may assume the donuts were the brain child of whatever evil genius trademarked Krispy Kremes, the truth is, donuts came to the United States from a variety of places. Some claim the donut was the product of early Dutch settlers, other’s site the Mexican churro as the first pioneer. But the donut as we know it today most likely came from Eastern Europe, a land where a ball of dough fried in fat and covered in sugar isn’t an artery clogging luxury, but a way to survive the long winter.

And while today Dunkin Donuts might have chip-monk cheeked Rachel Ray hawking its mass-produced wares, there was a time when the donut was a thing of pride, a crafted confection served at Easter Festivals and Purim celebrations. Now, its junk food, and not a very popular one at that. At least not for Arthur Przybysewiski (Craig Spidle) of Tracy Letts’ Superior Donuts, now playing at the Arden Theater. Arthur, the proprietor of a small dingy donut shop in Chicago’s seedy Uptown,  is a man who is so directionless as to be completely devoid of geography as a whole. A faded hippie with his Pink Floyd t-shirt and grayed ponytail, Arthur is drifting through his existence, maintaining his Polish immigrant father’s donut joint as a matter of inertia, refusing to sell to his ambitious Russian neighbor Max Tarasov (David Mackay), but also refusing to actually provide customers with decent coffee and donuts , muttering instead about the Starbucks across the street (as one character remarks, “Brother, they got Starbucks in wheat fields!”) . Arthur wanders through his shop with a meekly distracted mein, completely oblivious to the charms of straight shooting cop Randy Osteen (Jennifer Barnhart) and lost in his reminiscences of the past. Into Arthur’s dreamy dusty world comes Franco Wicks (James Ijames), like a knife through butter, slicing into Arthur’s apathy with a humor and gusto that soon becomes contagious. Franco’s youthful enthusiasm and massively scaled dreams illuminate the donut shop and Arthur, glowing with a vitality that has long been absent in Arthur’s life and donuts. But Franco has problems of his own, and Arthur finally finds himself unable to remain immobile and unmoved in the face of existence, forced to act, to move, to break from the spell of his memories and rejoin the human race. Eating alone is all well and good, but it doesn’t beat having company.

Tracy Letts is most famous for his Pulitzer Prize winning work August Osage County, a piece the Arden will be producing this coming fall. Dysfunction seems to be Letts’ bread and butter; he focuses on the broken, the defeated, the flawed.  This piece is no exception, discussing the many defeats of human existence and its few, glorious victories with evenhanded understanding.  Playing with realistic scenes layered between fevered monologues divorced from time and narrative explain Arthur and his person trajectory, this work feels uneven, disjointed, it’s flow stilted by its form. That being said, the Arden’s production of this work is so beautifully solid and moving that you could very well ignore these internal issues altogether, so swept away are we by the production. The play is directed by Edward Sobel, now Associate Artistic Director at the Arden Theater, whose last gig was at Steppenwolf Theater Company, the company that has premiered all of Letts work and of which Letts is an ensemble member. Beautifully paced and pleasingly understated, the work is staged in an excellent set by Kevin Depinet which manages to be both completely realistic and marvelously metaphoric at the same time. Lighting by Michelle Habeck is jerky at points but gets the job done, while costumes by Alison Roberts and sound design by Robert Kaplowitz both score and underline the piece with subtle effectiveness. The audience is set on three sides, the stage dipping into the stage like an emotionally driving peninsula, asserting itself in the audience’s experience, quietly demanding our attention.

And even if the design wasn’t so effective, we would still be utterly and complete moved by the performances of this cast. This is a rare production in which each and every character seems to be living truly and fully throughout the piece, and as a result each person in this play is fascinating to watch. Spidle leads the ensemble in talent, he is, quite simply, fantastic, quiet, meek, understated, bumbling, utterly understandable, completely empathic. He sells every moment of his emotional narrative effortlessly, he literally grows and evolves onstage, and his eventual confrontation of a pair of bullies (and his own past) is as magnificent as it is earned. Spidle is matched by Ijames who literally couldn’t play this part any better. Ijames warrants full superlatives, he is unbearably hilarious, sweet, sassy, a realistic dreamer whose determination to succeed grants him a never-ending supply of energy and empathy. His timing is impeccable, lines like “Let me tell you who looks good in ponytails. Girls, and ponies” transform themselves from amusing to bellyaching coming out of his mouth.  Mackay’s Tarasov is comedic without drifting into the sitcom arena, while Barnhart’s Osteen is sweetly awkward and completely understandable. Other excellent actors include Pete Pryor as a quietly menacing gangster, Luther Flynn, Brian Anthony Wilson as a Star trek loving Officer James Bailey, Jake Blouch as a stern muscled tough Kevin Magee, Ian Bedford as a hilariously stoic Slavic strongman Kiril Ivakin, and Nancy Boykin as the perpetually drunk perpetually brilliant Lady Boyle. Boykin really gets the best and most significant lines of the piece, wisely warbling “The spine don’t stick up for itself much, but when it does, it trumps the heart and the head every time”. Words former draft dodger Arthur takes to heart, no matter the repercussions. Sometimes you have to abstain, sure, but sometimes you just have to grab life by the horns and take a bite, no matter how hard it is. Fear can paralyze a person, yes. But it can also give you strength.

One of the themes of this work is Franco’s novel, the ” Great American Novel” (isn’t it amazing that there can only be one?), that he has titled “America Will Be”, a line drawn from the Langston Hughes poem Let America Be America Again. As Franco quotes it to Arthur:

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath–
America will be!

But it’s a shame that Franco didn’t continue, and tell us all the end of the poem:

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain–
All, all the stretch of these great green states–
And make America again!

And while there may be issues with this play, rough edges that need to be smoothed, contrivances that strike a sour note with the audience, the totality of the piece is so sweet, so full, so substantial, that it feels like a full well-balanced meal, and leaves the audience thinking, hoping, and wanting more for the future. Not too shabby for a play about junk food.

The Arden Theater’s production of Superior Donuts will be running from now until April 3rd. Tickets are available here.

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