Superior Donuts would be rightly praised for the remarkable play it is except for one huge handicap: It isn’t August: Osage County.
Both plays were written by Tracy Letts who first wrote such shockers as Killer Joe and Bug.They led his novelist mother to say her son’s characters always end up dead or naked. By contrast, he wrote Man from Nebraska, seen here at the Blue Barn, which treated religious faith intelligently without the usual stereotypes.
But Letts works in the shadow of his Pulitzer Prize triumph about that dysfunctional family in Osage County, arguably the best drama written in this century. So this new play at the Omaha Community Playhouse suffers from critics who looked for another Osage County or another shocker.
Add the fact that it spawned a television sit-com and that the characters don’t end up naked or dead and you get some sniffy reaction to a play that would have been received with more enthusiasm if written by any other playwright.
That’s a round-about way to put in perspective that Superior Donuts is a damn good play, a very substantial comedy performed wonderfully by a cast guided masterfully by director Susan Baer Collins. I suppose some of my friends bothered by the blunt language of August: Osage County will find fault with the four-letter words but what would you yell when burned by hot oil while frying donuts?
So don’t be too troubled by the fact that vandals who trashed the shop wrote “Pussy” on the wall. Instead, share the hopes and dreams and failures of the Polish-American shop-owner and the buoyant young black man who tries to raise his aspirations.We’re invited to weigh whether ambitious dreams are fantasies or opportunities, and how to find hope when life seems bleak.
Kevin Barratt as Arthur P (Przybyszewski is too big a mouthful) and Aaron Winston as his new employee Franco Wicks are an unlikely pair: the former so laid-back in his Grateful Dead shirt and ponytail that he borders on catatonic, the latter so hyper that he lights up the grim donut shop and doesn’t mind telling Arthur to shape up both personally and business-wise.(“That ponytail’s got to go. Let me tell you who looks good in a ponytail—girls and ponies.”)
Franco has been writing the Great American Novel most of his brief life, but he’s also been running up debts with a dangerous bookie. He couldn’t be more thrilled when Arthur takes an enthusiastic interest in his book, but despairs when his dream seems shattered.
A sub-plot involves the businessman next door, a Russian named Max played by Mark Thornburg, who wants to buy Arthur’s shop to expand his electronics store. He credits his success to “my personal touch…(pause)…and Croatian pornography.”
Jon Shaw, his nephew Kiril Ivakin, is the final character to make his appearance and completes the successful casting by director Collins. From the two police officers who investigate the vandalism (Julie Fitzgerald Ryan and Devel Crisp) to bag lady Mary Kelly and the bookie and his muscle (Jeremy Estill and Sean Tamisea), there’s no distracting weakness in this nine-player ensemble.
It’s also a tribute to the talent of playwright Letts that each character, while adding variety and entertainment value, contributes crucially to the development of the story and the main characters. Ryan, as Officer Randy, for example, helps our understanding of Arthur when they have awkward romantic encounters.
Thanks to Letts and director Collins, I left the theater with added appreciation of the art of Barratt, Thornburg and Kelly, and new appreciation of the others, especially the delightful young Winston.
And it’s worth mentioning that I witnessed the craziest, yet credible fight scene that I’ve ever seen on stage. It was directed by Jens Rasmussen, who had Barratt and Estill crashing wildly on and off stage.
Superior Donuts runs through June 4 on the Howard Drew stage of the Omaha Community Playhouse, 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets, $36 adults and $22 students, are available through omahaplayhouse.com or by calling 402.553.0800.