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