By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
All rise for Superior Donuts. Tracy Letts' funny little play about lonely people has brought light and laughter (and the scent of coffee and tasty pastries) to Theatre Too, the 80-seat space below Theatre Three. They've created a fully functioning South Side Chicago doughnut shop down there, run by a barely functioning, glazed-over character named Arthur Przybyszewski (played by Van Quattro).
Arthur has a hole in his heart. Divorced, estranged from his daughter, he sleepwalks through his days, barely noticing that the cute beat cop (Brandi Andrade) is flirting her head off every time she and her partner (Darius Warren) stop in to investigate another act of neighborhood vandalism.
The doughnut emporium, losing business to the Starbucks across the street, has been in Arthur's family for 60 years. The openly racist Russian guy (Rick Espaillat) who runs the "dee-wee-dee" shop next door wants to buy him out, but Arthur's too fuzzy-brained to make a decision. He doesn't even care about making doughnuts. If he has some, he sells some. If he doesn't, he doesn't.
Enter the catalyst in the person of Franco Wicks (Chris Piper). Young, tightly wound and full of grandiose notions, Franco bursts through the door of Superior Donuts and convinces Arthur to hire him. To boost business, Franco suggests hanging art on the walls, hosting yoga classes, chakra readings and poetry slams. "You really think I'm missing out on those big poet dollars?" says Arthur, whose every word seems weighed down with ennui. Still, he sees something in Franco and takes time to teach him how to drop rings of dough into the deep fryer the right way.
At 21, Franco has written the first draft of a great American novel titled America Will Be. When he asks Arthur to read the manuscript, penned in longhand in a tall stack of spiral notebooks, it's a turning point for both of them. "That's what friends do — share their stories," Franco says.
Letts lets his characters in Superior Donuts share lots of stories. It's a tricky maneuver for Arthur to step out of scenes to deliver straight-to-the-audience monologues about his own complicated life history, but it works here. That's how he becomes our friend; the more we hear, the better we like and understand him. Director Bruce Coleman has paced the transitions beautifully. Actor Quattro performs the speeches — and the rest of the play — with a quiet intensity that builds to an explosion of physical rage at the end.
The climactic fight scene in which Arthur takes on a slick bookie (Bill Jenkins) to whom Franco owes a five-figure debt isn't perfect. It's too long and the fight choreography could use some refining to make the punches look more authentic. But taken as a symbolic dance between older men engaged in a literal tug of war over one young man's future, it works.
Superior Donuts cooks on lots of levels. The play hints at heavy themes about urban isolation, corporate greed and racism, but the dialogue is liberally sprinkled with Letts' wit and his penchant for writerly references. Testing Arthur's knowledge of black literature, Franco challenges his boss to name 10 African-American poets, adding "if you say Nipsey Russell, the game is over." (Arthur surprises the kid.)
Theatre Three triumphed recently with a skillfully acted and brilliantly staged production of Aaron Sorkin's The Farnsworth Invention and now Theatre Too follows up with a surprisingly satisfying Superior Donuts. They're on a roll over there at The Quadrangle. Doing such good work with all-local actors — just icing on the cake.
A darker companion piece to Superior Donuts is Second Thought Theatre's mixed-media production of Dallas playwright Eric Steele's The Midwest Trilogy, now playing at Bryant Hall (next to Kalita Humphreys Theater on Turtle Creek). Two-thirds of the 80-minute trilogy are short films: Cork's Cattlebaron, which finds a couple of sales execs (Robert Longstreet, Frank Mosley) sitting down to 22-ounce T-bones in a busy Kansas steakhouse; and Topeka, about an uncomfortable encounter between a nervous Jewish dweeb (Hunter Wood) and a group of what might be Westboro Baptist types holding a meeting in a coffee shop in "fly-over country." (That's Lower Skillman's Goldrush Café, by the way, doubling as the Midwest location.)
Both films were written and directed by Steele (now one of the co-owners of The Texas Theatre), drawing on experiences as a corporate trainer spending 200 nights a year in Midwest motels. The characters he writes are fraught with tension. The nonstop blathering of the central figure (Longstreet's) in Cork's Cattlebaron makes him sound like a modern-day Willy Loman, striving to be "well liked" and to impress his thin-lipped coworker (Mosley) with his way around a wine list. His comeuppance can't come quickly enough.
The blowup between the twitchy guy in Topeka and locals he suspects are anti-Semites plotting his ruin speaks to the paranoia of any outsider who suddenly feels like the skunk at the picnic. Dallas actors Clay Yocum, Mike Schroeder and Marjorie Hayes are terrific as the uptight religious types.
All of Bryant Hall has been converted into a hotel conference room setting — straight-backed chairs, coffee and cookies, "Hello my name is" stick-ons — to enhance the atmosphere of the third part of The Midwest Trilogy, the one-man play Bob Birdnow's Remarkable Tale of Human Survival and the Transcendence of Self. First performed at last summer's Festival of Independent Theatres, Birdnow wowed audiences and critics then and should now too. After some reworking by Steele and director Lee Trull, it's grown into a stunning piece of theater. Acted again by Barry Nash, it's a mini-masterpiece that takes the audience on a 50-minute journey into one man's hell and through the other side to enlightenment.
Nash begins Bob's monologue with congenial humility, pausing for trips to the coffee pot at the back of the room and shouts to "Jerry" in the booth to see how he's doing on time. He drops phrases such as "I wasn't born on the strawberry float" and paints word pictures about a childhood spent among the sunny Iowa cornfields.
As the lighting (designed by Madeleine Lynch) subtly dims to focus on Bob, we are drawn into his riveting story of a plane flight to Colorado, with him as pilot, with his friends as passengers, that ends in tragedy. Steele has Bob deconstruct his physical reactions to fear and explore the decision process involved in going from victim to survivor in a life-threatening ordeal. We're with Bob every step down an icy mountain and back into a life where he's the guy responsible for the deaths of five good men. "Who is your greatest self?" asks Bob as he winds up his speech. That's the question we take home with us.
Nash, his forehead knitted into five deep furrows, does the hard work of playing strength and vulnerability simultaneously. As Bob Birdnow, he is flawless, giving a performance that takes flight and soars up and up into the stratosphere.