TheatreWorks’ slam-dunkin’ Donuts

Superior Donuts 2
 

A gallery of Bay Area greats. The cast of TheatreWorks’ Superior Donuts includes (from left) Howard Swain, Søren Oliver, Julia Brothers and Joan Mankin. Below: Lance Gardener as Franco Wicks. Photos by Tracy Martin

 

I reviewed TheatreWorksSuperior Donuts for the Palo Alto Weekly (read the review here), and the official review will be out on Friday (Oct. 15). I loved the show and appreciated Letts’ ability to create a conventionally well-made play that, unlike a donut, isn’t all empty calories and sticky sweetness.

What I didn’t have space for in the review was proper praise of the entirely local cast.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that Leslie Martinson, director of Superior Donuts, should bring together such good actors. Martinson is also the company’s casting director and has been with TheatreWorks for 26 years. Some directors say that casting is more than 50 percent of directing, and that’s probably true for Martinson, though she’s clearly a solid director (I loved her Theophilus North three years ago).

Howard Swain stars as donut shop owner Arthur Przybyszewski, an aging hippie who can’t really be bothered by life, which he describes as “a derailment.” He runs his shabby donut shop and doesn’t much care that the new Starbucks across the street is killing his business. For him, the business has been dead for years. Swain conveys Arthur’s detachment while making us care about him. Arthur has made some rough decisions in his life, and his troubled relationship with his now-dead father complicate his emotional life as well as his relationships with his own fractured family.

Superior Donuts 3 (crop)

You can see and feel Arthur start to liven up with the arrival of Franco Wicks, an enthusiastic 21-year-old played by Lance Gardner. If Swain is the soul of the play, Gardner is its spark. He bounces around the set like a dancer interpreting his own original score, and he’s a joy to watch. Gardner and Swain play off of each other expertly, with natural and naturally comic rhythms that go a long way toward making Letts’ play seem more profound than it might actually be.

This is a star-making performance for Gardner, who more than holds his own opposite a seasoned pro like Swain.

There is much about Letts’ play that is conventional, like the gangster Luther Flynn played by the always-reliable Gabriel Marin. Though he’s a typical big-city goon, Luther claims he has empathy, and all that empathy has given him an ulcer. Marin takes a stock character and makes it more believable. The same is true for Joan Mankin as the sort of bag lady /neighborhood drunk known as Lady Boyle. You just know Lady is going to spout crazy wisdom at some point, and sure enough, here it comes. But Mankin gives Lady a little edge. She’s not always nice, nor is she always safely sane.

Julia Brothers is Randy, a beat cop with a thing for Arthur, and her courtship – if you can even call it that – with Arthur is adorably awkward. What could be the play’s most conspicuously sappy subplot becomes its most endearing. And Michael J. Asberry as Randy’s partner reveals himself to be a “Star Trek” geek and a truly committed police officer.

As Max, the Russian proprietor of the DVD shop next door, Søren Oliver gets to play bumbling immigrant, no-nonsense businessman, neighborhood tough and sloppy drunk – and it’s all mightily entertaining.

Superior Donuts was Letts’ encore after winning the Pulitzer Prize for the considerably darker and thornier August: Osage County. His attempt to interject a slice of hope into the landscape of American drama didn’t fare very well on Broadway. I think the play fits much more comfortably on the regional stage, where plays don’t have to shake the foundations of the theatrical establishment to be noticed. TheatreWorks, a company unafraid of compassion and sentiment, is the perfect home for this play.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

The TheatreWorks production of Tracy Letts’ Superior Donuts continues through October 31 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $19-$67. Call 650 463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org for information.

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