BWW Review: Realistic Drama Told in SUPERIOR DONUTS at SHEA'S 710 THEATRE
A gritty reality that is so true to form that you have to remind yourself you are watching a play, versus eavesdropping on someone's life... That is what is playing out in Tracy Letts' SUPERIOR DONUTS, now at Shea's 710 Theatre in a winning production by Road Less Traveled Productions.
Letts is best known for his brilliant AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY, where a dysfunctional family copes with death of their father. In Superior Donuts, he again explores the themes of family, tradition and grief. We are told the action takes place 10 years ago in Chicago in the Superior Donuts shop. The shop has been vandalized, the owner being a middle aged hippy whose Polish immigrant family started the shop years ago. The neighborhood is in decline, but Starbucks just opened up nearby and a DVD and electronics store wants to take over his building. Is it time to let go, or make changes to the shop. A desperate young man applies to be a helper and brings along his unbridled optimism.
Steve Jakiel is Arthur Przybyszewski, the donut shop owner, and the role fits him like a glove, almost as if Mr. Letts had written the part for him. Jakiel is excellent as your everyday working class man, rarely flustered by his life today, but plagued with memories of dodging the draft and running away to Canada. His failed marriage and his now estranged daughter are topics he rarely eludes too. Jakiel has the faintest of second and third generation American-Polish accents ( you know, the type heard in Buffalo's Broadway Market) and would fit right in at a South Buffalo corner bar. Jakiel jumps out the action to speak directly to the audience, exposing subjects he can't bring himself to speak of directly to others. He has a strong work ethic, following in his father's footsteps, but knows he disappointed him by avoiding the Vietnam war. But his devotion to his business is stronger than his interpersonal skills, and failed relationships and commitment issues mirror the failing neighborhood.
Jake Hayes is a ball of energy as young Franco Wicks, the young African American who desperately needs work. Hayes brings an elusive energy to every scene he is in, always believable, and hard to take your eyes off. We learn of his trouble with some bookies that has left him $16,000 in debt and in taking the minimum wage job at the donut shop, at least he can start his payback. What instead develops is an unlikely relationship with Arthur and Franco. Franco's love for Black poetry shocks Arthur, and Arthur's knowledge of Black poets shocks Franco. Franco shows Arthur his first novel, written on multiple notebooks and scraps, and Arthur is fascinated by how good it is. Franco slowly peels away the layers of Arthur's past, all the while never exposing his own. The relationship becomes co-dependent, but both men are too proud to admit they need each other.
Lisa Vitrano is Office Randy and Gabriel Robere is Officer James. The two cops frequent the shop and are called when it has been vandalized. Randy has her eyes set on Arthur, but he is not self aware enough to even notice. Vitrano gives a first rate performance as the only female born to a family of 7 brothers, all cops. Her life has been filled with sports and police business, but she yearns for more. Her relationship with Arthur slowly blooms with a hope of happiness for both of them.
John Profeta has an infectious presence as Max Tarasov, the Russian immigrant who looks after the neighborhood, swears like a trooper and has no sense of political correctness. Mr. Profeta seems to be having a ball as he literally encompasses the entire stage with his larger than life character. Max is a member of the newest era of immigrants, standing up for what is right and hoping to prosper with a life in the USA.
Johnny Barden is one of the bookie's henchmen, and his boss is Luther Flynn, played eerily well by Dave Hayes. The two confront Franco about his debt and give him a deadline. Mr. Hayes is spot on as the slimy, smiling bookie who suffers from ulcers due to all of his stress, but instills fear by his mere presence. The actions turns sour when Franco is brutally attacked, hospitalized and his novel is destroyed. Arthur makes good on Franco's debt, but a physical brawl ensues, all of his own doing. The prolonged fight scene between Arthur and Luther is poorly choreographed, and simply goes on too long, causing snickers in the audience for it's lack of believability. The production deserved better attention to this very important moment.
Tina Rausa is Lady Boyle, the bag lady who comes to the shop daily for her free coffee and donut. Arthur proclaims it is his shop and he can give away anything he wants, when asked by other's about Lady. Rausa brings a humanity and insight to the role, having lost some children and helping Arthur realize he has time left to make an impact of someone's life. And Letts script intimates that Arthur has multiple people left in his life.
Director Lucas Lloyd has an excellent cast to work with and uses the large stage well. Dyan Burlingame's set is appropriately worn and tired and well lit by Nicholas Quinn.The drama develops organically, with each character's story exposition giving a deep insight into what makes them tick. Letts' name of the shop alone speaks of the confidence a young Polish immigrant had in proclaiming that his donuts were indeed superior. But 50 years later, the concept of a superior donut seems superfluous, as can be easily seen in a failed Krispy Kreme on Niagara Falls Boulevard.
SUPERIOR DONUTS runs through October 27, 2019 at Shea's 710 Theatre. Contact sheas.org for more information.