BWW Reviews: Denver Center's SUPERIOR DONUTS

By: Apr. 15, 2011
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In SUPERIOR DONUTS at the Denver Center, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts (August:Osage County) tells the tough but tender story of a fading, family-owned donut shop. Arthur, its aging proprietor who is content to reminisce about the good ol' days, hires a young African-American assistant bursting with ideas for healthy menu options, hopeful about an unpublished novel, and burdened by unpaid gambling debts. SUPERIOR DONUTS affectionately explores our roots, the need to embrace change, and the redemptive power of friendship.

Entering the theatre was a multi-sensory experience. The sounds of industrial Chicago, the slight chill in the air, and even the aroma of hot oil set the tone, immersing the audience in a definite time and place. The set, crafted by scenic designer Lisa M. Orzolek, felt like a donut shop in every sense, yet was open enough for the audience to enjoy in true theater-in-the-round fashion. Stark fluorescent lighting added to the spartan café-style ambiance. My first thought, obviously, was "wouldn't it be great to have donuts sold at this performance?" Imagine my delight as I enjoyed a Krispy Kreme at intermission!

The story centers around the budding friendship between Arthur Przybyszewski ("The root of the Polish character is hopelessness") and Franco Wicks ("You don't think a black man can write the next great American Novel") set in classic "odd couple" format. It's worth noting that the speed with which the vandalism in the opening scene takes place is something to behold. In just under two minutes, cast members trash the set with graffiti and random destruction of property, setting the stage for the story (and backstory) about to unfold. Arthur's story is so bound to Chicago's history that the play almost feels autobiographical, and the 60-year-old donut shop provides a perfect symbol for the tumultuous history of Chicago. Arthur and Franco establish a friendly rapport right off the bat that drives the first act and is quite comical. The second act opens with the most awkward - and most riveting - flirtation scene that you simply cannot take your eyes off the characters involved. With the informal banter and comic relief, at times it's easy to forget that this story is a tragedy at its core. While I was prepared for the misfortune and heartache when it happened, I admit I was shaken by the magnitude of it. A special kudos goes out to choreographer Geoffrey Kent for a fight sequence that comes off as authentic and unpredictable. It was smart to have the actors wear padding so they could make real physical contact. The tragedy, when it inevitably happens, is heartbreaking, as evidenced by the audible, stunned gasps from the audience. And watching the interpersonal dynamic between Arthur and Franco shift - from futility and despair to possibility and hope, and back again - is like being on an emotional roller coaster. Getting off is not an option, however, as the story is one to stick with, no matter how difficult, no matter how exhilarating. In the end the ride is wholly satisfying and leaves one with the overall message that drives the plot: believe in possibilities!

Denver Center veteran actor Mike Hartman rises to the challenge of the complex and endearing Arthur. Sheldon Best shines as the tireless entrepreneur Franco, making the character his own. While this play is primarily about the relationship between these two men, the supporting cast does a superb job giving their characters depth. Under the direction of the talented Bruce K. Sevy, SUPERIOR DONUTS is a thoroughly enjoyable production filled with comedy and sprinkled with the right dose of tragedy.

SUPERIOR DONUTS is playing now through May 7th at the Space Theatre in the Denver Center. To purchase tickets or for information, call Denver Center Ticket Services at 303.893.4100. Tickets may also be purchased at the Denver Center Ticket Office, located at the Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex Lobby. Buy and print them online at

PHOTO CREDIT:  Terry Shapiro

Mike Hartman as Arthur Przybyszewski

Sheldon Best as Franco Wicks

Mike Hartman as Arthur Przybyszewski and Sheldon Best as Franco Wicks

Mike Hartman as Arthur Przybyszewski and Jeanne Paulsen as Officer Randy Osteen

Mike Hartman as Arthur Przybyszewski

Mike Hartman as Arthur Przybyszewski and Sheldon Best as Franco Wicks