Superior Donuts groups wonderful acting vets in an inferior production

Set in a doughnut shop in a rundown section of Chicago, Superior Donuts centers on the growing friendship between the defeated and deflated owner, Arthur Przybyszewski, an aging hippie who avoided the draft by fleeing to Canada and still feels guilty about it, and Franco Wicks, a black youngster who comes in looking for a job. There are also a couple of cops — one is a woman interested in Arthur, the other her black partner and a Star Trek fan — as well as a colorful Russian emigre, Max Tarasov, who wants to buy the shop to expand his electronics store; a bag lady; and a pair of small-time hoods to whom Franco owes money.

Plays about two unlikely people finding and coming to understand each other are the bread and butter of dramaturgy, and done with skill and ingenuity, they can work well. I'm thinking of the small but wonderful Visiting Mr. Green — in which an impatient yuppie businessman is forced to visit weekly with a cranky senior — that was produced some years back by the Denver Center Theatre Company. In the 1970s, there were a lot of dramas and sitcoms about elderly white guys — often Jewish — and black youths, and also, of course, Chico and the Man, in which a spunky Latino humanized a white racist. Though I had reservations about these shows, something in them spoke to me. They expressed a genuine distress over racism and injustice and a yearning to breach barriers — and you could honor that, even as you remained acutely aware that they were primarily the sentimental fantasies of rich white guys.

But why would anyone revive this fading trope now? In particular, why Tracy Letts? After all, he's known for compelling, crazy-violent plays and the Pulitzer-winning August, Osage County, a family drama in which the violence is psychological but nonetheless relentless. Superior Donuts is populated by characters who seem to have wandered in from television dramas, and it has a pinkly pulsating sugar-sweet heart that makes a mockery of the phrase "dark comedy" that's used in all of the advertising. Letts does use the word "fuck" a lot, but that can only mask sentimentality for so long.

Despite all this, the first act of this Denver Center production works — in part because the dialogue is reasonably witty and the plot deficiencies aren't entirely evident yet, and in part because the cast is stellar. Mike Hartman is one of those honest, humorous actors who effortlessly grounds any play he's in. Not only does he do shambling old guy better than anyone else in the world, he's also wonderful at listening and responding to others, which makes for some fine moments between him and an appealing newcomer to Denver: Sheldon Best as Franco. Best does everything that can be done with the role, but I had to struggle to see the character as a real person. Franco is the kind of black kid that whites can love: speedy, smart, affectionate and vulnerable. Though he issues an occasional challenge, he's never confrontational enough to create discomfort. And he's tripped up constantly by the plot. Here's a youngster enough in tune with the zeitgeist to come up with all kinds of ways to revive the doughnut shop, from poetry readings to yoga classes, and his analysis of Arthur's style of dress is sharp: "The Grateful Dead ain't gonna hire a new guitar player," he observes. But while he thinks he's written the great American novel — and believes Arthur can help him get it published — he's not savvy enough to have done so on a computer. This means the grubby stack of notebooks that he hands to Arthur is his only copy. You really don't need a Weatherman to know which way this wind is blowing.

We also get a lot of canned-sounding exposition in a series of monologues by Arthur. There's a big fight that turns out to be completely unnecessary, except as one of those symbolic guilt-expiating, father-son things. I wanted to be moved when Max's huge and silent nephew performed an unexpected act of compassion, but it felt too contrived. It's such a pleasure to see wonderful veterans like Hartman, Kathleen M. Brady, Jeanne Paulsen, Robert Sicular and John Hutton on the stage together. What a pity it had to be in this.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman