BWW Reviews: Tennessee Rep Serves Up Well-Acted SUPERIOR DONUTS at TPAC'S Johnson Theatre

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Despite their best efforts, director Lauren Shouse and her amazingly talented cast just can't give Tracy Lett's Superior Donuts the emotional heft-the literary gravitas-that the playwright so mightily struggles for in his sitcomesque script which pales in comparison to his supposed masterpiece, August: Osage County. Clearly, it's the success of that earlier, heavily-decorated and awarded, Pulitzer Prize-winning play that most theatre companies are invoking as they attempt to sell tickets to this decidedly lesser work, hoping to capitalize on its success in hoodwinking an unsuspecting audience.

Although Superior Donuts has its winning moments and is not totally devoid of artistic achievement, it remains nonetheless a vehicle for some truly stunning work from Nashville actor Brian Webb Russell, who has made his name on local stages by taking on a wide range of roles (if only Tennessee Rep's artistic director Rene Dunshee Copeland would give him the chance to play Willy Loman-that will be on my wish list henceforth) that perfectly showcase his abilities. Russell is, without doubt, a treasure of the local theater scene, and seeing him at the top of his game is always a worthwhile endeavor; I just wish he had better "literature" to work with than he is given in Superior Donuts.

Again, it's not that Superior Donuts is some piece of dinner theater fluff you'd find on the chow-and-bow circuit: It is, thankfully, meatier than that (realize, gentle readers, that I probably will be mixing my food/theater metaphors willy-nilly in this review), if sometimes it become treacly sweet (not unlike the cream-filled bismarcks in the bakery case on Gary C. Hoff's exquisitely crafted set) in the process, and it walks a very fine line between maudlin, mawkish, manipulative tripe and thoroughly involving social-issue drama.

The relationship between Russell's Arthur Przbyszewski (a Polish-American, 1960s radical who runs a donut shop that's been in his family for 60 years) and Brandon Hirsch's Franco Wicks (a 21-year-old African-American man who goes to work in the shop, sharing his optimistic world view that he maintains despite the harsh realities of his life) is at the core of Superior Donuts and it is that relationship that prevents Letts' play from descending into the depths of a televised situation comedy that jumps the shark mid-episode. As Arthur and Franco engage in a curious, if amusing, pas de deux as they establish the parameters of their relationship and reveal the truths about their own lives (Arthur cheats by speaking directly to the audience in the spirit of an after-school special, so we're privy to information that Franco begs for-the donut guy ought to be ashamed, really).

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And that's a good thing, although it begs the question: Why didn't Letts create this work as a two-person comedy-drama? It certainly would have shaved some time from the show's length and quickened the pace of the sometime lugubrious and/or lurching plot developments (although I'm all for giving more actors paying gigs).The give-and-take between Arthur and Franco is generally well-written (although, I have to admit, the older I get the more troubled I become about middle-agEd White guys writing dialogue for young African-American men, for fear of perpetuating stereotypes) and their onstage banter is clever, if completely predictable (as is most of what transpires throughout the two and a half hours-at least-of stage action), as they come to terms with their interdependence. Thankfully, the chemistry between Russell and Hirsch is palpably relatable and so genuine that if you suspend disbelief you can more easily give yourself over to Letts' formulaic script.

Russell, not unlike a fine wine, gets better with age: he's focused and supremely confident onstage, taking on the mantle of the down-at-heels, preternaturally sad and depressed Arthur with grace. He never succumbs to the easy way out, instead delivering a performance that is notable in its richly hued shadings and his completely self-assured ability to take on the mantle of a character foisted upon him by a playwright's whims. Perhaps most important, other than the chemistry he shares with Hirsch, is Russell's genuine rapport with his audience which helps those spotlighted soliloquies that Letts has scripted for Arthur to transcend stagebound convention.

Hirsch courageously takes on his role-it's not for nothing that most actors might quake in their boots when paired up with Russell-and delivers the goods, going toe-to-toe with the veteran actor and giving a performance that is charmingly nuanced, yet thoroughly believable. Hirsch's energy-and his character's-fills the theater, lifting Superior Donuts from the bleak and dismal setting in which the story plays out.

Russell and Hirsch are given able support by an ensemble of talenTed Nashville actors who take on roles straight out of central casting-filed under the "neighbors/sidekicks/second bananas" category-and make the most of what they are given. Jon Royal is fine as the neighborhood patrol cop whose private life includes a fascination with all things Star Trek. Shelean Newman plays against type as his rough-and-tumble partner (she's in the middle of six, beer-swilling, sportsfan brothers in her hockey-loving family), who has designs on Arthur despite his sometimes misanthropic ways.

David Compton is fine as the nattily dressed neighborhood bookie, to whom Franco is deep in debt, and Joeseph Robinson is all swagger and bluster as his muscle, while Elizabeth Davidson gives a worthy performance as the neighborhood bag lady (who, interestingly enough, is named "Lady").

Fight director Eric D. Pasto-Crosby choreographs a complex fight sequence that gives longtime friends and associates Russell and Compton the chance to pummel each other with controlled abandon during a sequence that provides the play's climactic denouement.

Local stage favorite Henry Haggard (who was probably in the running for the role of Arthur) is cast as neighboring merchant Max Tarasov, a blunt Russian émigré who proves his loyalty in a not unexpected way in the play's second act. Haggard manages to imbue his character with enough theatricality to make his scenes fairly ring out with laughter and energy, while keeping him earthbound and, therefore, completely believable. Jeremy Childs completes the ensemble as Max's towering nephew Kiril Ivakin, just arrived from the old country and embodying the phrase "gentle giant."

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Hoff's scenic design is, as to be expected, phenomenally detailed and beautifully conceived, artfully capturing the once-grand Superior Donuts shop in its current, dilapidated condition. Paul Carrol Binkley's sound design adds context to the setting (he sets the right tone with his loud rumblings from a nearby elevated train), while Michael Barnett's lighting design helps focus the attention of the audience while giving the requisite atmospheric conditions to the playing space. TrisH Clark's costumes are ideally suited to the characters and situations that play out onstage, allowing her to show off her own estimable attention to detail.

In other opening night developments, Tennessee Rep's producing artistic director Rene Dunshee Copeland announced the company's 2012-13 season, which will open with the Tennessee premiere of Bruce Norris' 2012 Pulitzer Prize-winning Clybourne Park (September 8-22); Jeffrey Hatcher's adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (October 12-November 3); the return of holiday tradition A Christmas Story (December 1-22); Kander and Ebb's Cabaret (February 16-March 9, 2013); and Donald Margulies' Time Stands Still (April 20-May 4, 2013).

Superior Donuts. By Tracy Letts. Directed by Lauren Shouse. Presented by Tennessee Repertory Theatre at the Andrew Johnson Theatre, Tennessee Performing Arts Center, Nashville. Through March 31. For details, go to www.tennesseerep.org.

photos of Brian Russell and Brandon Hirsch in Tennessee Rep's Superior Donuts by Shane Burkeen


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Jeffrey Ellis Jeffrey Ellis is a Nashville-based writer, editor and critic, who's been covering the performing arts in Tennessee for more than 25 years. He is the recipient of the Tennessee Theatre Association's Distinguished Service Award for his coverage of theatre in the Volunteer State and was the founding editor/publisher of Stages, the Tennessee Onstage Monthly. He is a past fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center and is the founder/executive producer of The First Night Honors, held during Labor Day Weekend, which honor oustanding theater artists in Tennessee in recognition of their lifetime achievements and includes The First Night Star Awards and the Most Promising Actors. Midwinter's First Night, held the first Sunday in January after New Year's Day, honors outstanding productions and performances throughout the state. Further, Ellis directed the Nashville premiere of La Cage Aux Folles, The Last Night of Ballyhoo and An American Daughter, as well as award-winning productions of Damn Yankees, Company, Gypsy and The Rocky Horror Show, with Ellis honored by The Tennessean as best director of a musical for both Company and Rocky Horror.


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