BWW Review: SUPERIOR DONUTS at Oyster Mill Playhouse
In this day and age, race and social class are very challenging topics to discuss. Everyone has an opinion, and many are unafraid to share it. These clashing views can sometimes render these subjects somewhat taboo, but Oyster Mill Playhouse is choosing to bring these tricky topics to light. With a touch of humor and heart, their current production of SUPERIOR DONUTS is one that speaks to the genuine power of friendship and empathy, while giving the audience a laugh or two along the way.
SUPERIOR DONUTS, written by Tracy Letts, premiered on Broadway at the Music Box Theatre in 2009 after a two-month run at the Downstairs Theatre in Chicago in 2008. The show officially opened on October 1st, 2009 and ran until January 3rd, 2010. The production was met with generally positive reviews, and was performed by many regional theatres in subsequent years, including Oyster Mill Playhouse. The original Broadway cast included Michael McKean as Arthur Przybyszewski and Jon Michael Hill as Franco, the latter receiving a Tony Award nomination for Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Play. While still being a substantial choice for community theatres, SUPERIOR DONUTS has also been adapted into a television sitcom on CBS, starring Judd Hirsch as Arthur and Jermaine Fowler as Franco. Both the play and the show follows the life of Arthur, a lethargic and downtrodden Polish donut shop owner who develops a friendship with Franco, a young, energetic African American man with big plans for Superior Donuts. Oyster Mill Playhouse's production of SUPERIOR DONUTS brings out all the classic elements of an unlikely relationship between these two very different characters, and provides a look at life from the streets of Chicago.
The driving force behind SUPERIOR DONUTS is the friendship between Arthur and Franco, and Oyster Mill Playhouse has casted two excellent actors in each of these roles. Arthur is portrayed by Jeff Wasileski, who from the very start creates a character who very clearly lives in a haze from day to day. He is simply going through the motions while interrupting the largely uneventful day at the donut shop to smoke weed, an act that explains the well-established mellow personality that Wasileski develops early on. Through his unconcerned reaction to the vandalism of his store and his initial interactions with the neighborhood cops called to the scene, the audience quickly identifies Wasileski's Arthur as a man who, while kind, embodies a largely apathetic nature that he has learned through time and tragedy. His life has been full of it's share of sadness, as told by Arthur himself through a series of transitional soliloquies between scenes. Wasileski continuously impresses with his ease of delivery during these solitary minutes on stage, his lines tinged with a kind of ebb and flow that expose Arthur's vulnerability and captivates the audience as he tells his life story. He generously employs a helping of emotion and sincerity in his soliloquies that make these moments engaging and interesting, and leave the audience wanting to know the next chapter of his tale. Wasileski's Arthur has been dragged through life by the ears, and is on the brink of throwing in the towel. His generally defeated nature is displayed clearly through Wasileski's natural, easy stage presence, one that allows him to embody his tired persona quite well. In fact, his skill in creating a run-down Arthur is one that perfectly mirrors the energy in Samuel J. Pygatt's Franco.
From his first moments onstage, Pygatt establishes himself as a fan favorite. He enters with gusto and brings to the table the enthusiasm for life that Wasileski's Arthur has lost long ago. He emanates the self-described "self-starter" personality, and wins over the audience with his equally real stage presence and wealth of both intelligence and comedic timing, the latter being some of the best in the show. Both he and Arthur are filled to the brim with wit, and Franco especially is unafraid to use it. Pygatt has perfected the dreamer within Franco through his large gestures and hopeful facial expressions, clearly showing the belief that Franco has for the future. He is not only a hard worker, but an optimist, a trait that Arthur is undoubtedly unfamiliar with. Franco is incredibly genuine and zealous, and the audience loves him for this. Pygatt endows Franco with unflinching candor and confidence, which makes moments where he is able to rapidly change his positive demeanor into a somber one all the more impressive and showing his versatility as an actor. It is difficult to see him later on in the show in a more broken state, as his character is much different without his endless optimism. However, this change is impressive, and demonstrates just how effectively Pygatt manages to persuade the audience to empathize with his character. Franco's relationship and ultimately close friendship with Arthur grows progressively throughout the show, and it is through this that we see each character start to change.
Arthur and Franco are opposites in almost every way imaginable, and it is through this opposition that they are able to connect with one another. Wasileski and Pygatt have several immensely entertaining rounds of circular arguments and banter onstage, using each character's intelligence to place them in a battle of wits that amuses the audience on every occasion. However, as much as the audience enjoys their academic arguing, the more sincere moments are just as satisfying. Each clearly cares for the other, and shows it in a way that fits with their character. Franco's enthusiasm lends him to give Arthur advice on how to innovate his shop, and Arthur in turn attempts to aid Franco in publishing his "great American novel." They want each other to succeed, and employ the unlikely friendship element of their relationship very effectively. Their specific pairing isn't a common one, but it does fall into the "young man and old man teach each other" trope that Wasileski and Pygatt have openly embraced. Arthur's hard, rugged exterior begins to peel away around Franco; he becomes more engaging and pleasant, even going as far as to attempt a relationship with a woman, and Wasileski does an excellent job of showing his character's layers as the show progresses. Franco has also come away with a significant amount of knowledge as a result of his friendship with Arthur, and Pygatt displays this influence through changes in his character's demeanor and attitudes throughout the show. Wasileski and Pygatt succeed in push each other's characters to their limits, especially in scenes where their playful arguments become very real. Their initial conflicts become comradery, and seeing each character play into the fantasies of the other is significantly heartwarming. Their dynamic is genuine and ever-changing, and serves to drive the show in the way that it should.
While Wasileski and Pygatt often steal the show, Oyster Mill's production of SUPERIOR DONUTS is not without its supporting talent. This primarily comes in the form of Lisa Harris and Gary Jones, who play neighborhood cops Randy and James respectively. Both employ another example of the naturalistic acting style of the show, and each represent the "causal city cop" persona that fits very well with the Uptown Chicago setting. On her own, Harris creates a caring and empathetic Randy, a woman who is able to hold her own in any situation and is no stranger to sarcasm and wit. Her tough exterior matches well with that of Arthur, making it no surprise that she begins to hint around her feelings for him. Randy and Arthur have a real, enjoyable chemistry together once each of them begins to act upon their feelings; the awkward elements that define any budding relationship displayed well by both actors and creating moments that quite literally made the audience say, "Aw!" Harris's comfort and openness onstage make her another audience favorite, and she shines even brighter when paired with Wasileski.
Gary Jones plays James, Randy's partner on the police force whom she often describes as a "total nerd." Jones's James is brought to life with emotion, crafting a man with a kind soul whose ultimate goal is simply to do his job. While generally calm, collected, and authoritative, he occasionally lets loose a bit of anger that the audiences finding themselves relate to. Jones's James wants to remain in control, but he sometimes slips and expresses some of the frustration for the situation that we as an audience may be feeling as well. He is both practical and playful, the kind of man that the audience comes to respect. While sometimes in need of a bit of variation in inflection, Jones displayed knowledge of physicality to appear very natural onstage. He makes a great companion to Harris's Randy while also doing well on his own.
Andy Isaacs plays Max Tarasov, Arthur's Russian friend and fellow business owner who eventually wants to buy Superior Donuts for himself. A man fond of profanity, Isaacs's Max has his fair share of humorous moments, many of his jokes finding their mark as a result of decent comedic timing. His character is one of the more amusing elements of the show, but Isaacs is also clearly capable of portraying a man who has lived through several hardships and has become very much a cynic as a result. He has what he believes to be righteous anger towards his current society, although Isaacs could perhaps benefit from a bit more intensity during his character's significantly charged speeches. He pushes the envelope in terms of emotions, but taking his anger one step further, including some more varied voice cadence and physicality, would result in an even better performance. His accent, while perhaps needing a touch of fine tuning, is also generally impressive, and his character's mixed intentions is portrayed well throughout the show.
In addition to Isaacs is Daphin Bowman as Lady Boyle, a frequent customer of Superior Donuts who seems to be perpetually drunk, a state that Bowman portrays quite well. Her character's alcoholism renders her as a woman who appears to be very laid back and casual during her visits to the shop, but this ultimately masks a wisdom and sensitivity that Bowman coherently displays despite Lady's condition. Her character was one that provided a bit of comic relief while also inspiring a bit of sadness in the audience that is a sign of a job well done.
No play would be complete without an antagonist, and SUPERIOR DONUTS provides this in the way of Luther and Kevin, played by Rob Kopko and Jonathan C. Morgan respectively. Luther is the local loan shark, one whom Franco has worked with and whom expects to be paid back for his services. Rob Kopko's Luther is bold, and in possession of a loud personality that obviously marks him as large and in charge. His character's inherently sketchy nature paired with Kopko's clever acting results in the audience's confusion as to what Luther's true intentions may be. He at times appears concerned for Franco and engages in seemingly casual conversation with him, yet other times is ready to have him beat to a pulp at the drop of a hat. This is an interesting choice, and one that the audience appreciates in the form of concern for Franco while he is in Luther's presence. Kopko's Luther is an intriguing mix of charisma and untrustworthiness, making him an dynamic "villain" onstage. He is accompanied by Jonathan C. Morgan as Kevin, Luther's lackey who clearly serves as the brawns of the operation. However, Morgan plays a man who is just as confident as his superior; he is used to always being feared and is quite suprised when not everyone is dominated by his presence. Morgan displayed solid physicality in his role, and this made him all the more believable as Luther's right hand man.
SUPERIOR DONUTS at Oyster Mill Playhouse is a production that succeeds in it's mission of giving the heartstrings a good tug while also adding a bit of humor on the side. The exceptional acting talent displayed by the cast results in a show with a beating heart. Audiences are ensnared into the story, and major plot points affect them very deeply, a testament to their investment in the show. There were several collective, audible reactions made by the audience throughout the performance, and we genuinely want to know what is going to become of the characters that we have become familiar with. The show handles the topics of divides and differences between members of the same community, as well as how to overcome these challenges. Oyster Mill Playhouse's production celebrates friendship and it's tremendous value on the lives of others, making SUPERIOR DONUTS a treat sure to satisfy any sweet tooth.
Presented by Oyster Mill Playhouse through May 7th. Next is Social Security. Visit oystermill.com.
Photo credits to Ashley Nicole Photography.