After the world premiere of his epic A Lie of the Mind in 1985, Sam Shepard told an interviewer that no matter what he wrote next, the critics would rip it to shreds. Instead of trying to repeat Lie, Shepard just went about his business: the next year he produced some short pieces set to Bob Dylan’s music and, in 1988, wrote the screenplay for Far North.
After his epic Autumn: Osage County won every conceivable award in 2008, including the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Tracey Letts probably felt the same way. Letts didn’t attempt another epic and didn’t return to his earlier scene-slashers, Killer Joe and Bug. Instead, he shot off in a different direction and wrote a serious comedy about an odd couple.
When you see the San Diego Rep’s production — and I urge that you do — don’t stereotype Arthur Przybyszewski or Franco Wicks. On the surface, they look familiar enough, but they defy categorizing. So does this play.
Arthur’s in his 60s — and is from the ’60s — his long gray hair and ponytail markers of another era. At first he talks like an old doper. His slow words and nods, combined with his dull retro clothing, suggest that his mind must be down to seeds and stems. Even the trashing of his business, Superior Donuts, barely fazes him. He just ambles around and props up tables and chairs in slo-mo. And when the place is open for business, Arthur gives away more coffee and doughnuts than he sells.
Enter Franco Wicks, barging in and needing a job. The hyper 21-year-old African-American has as many dreams as debts (to, it turns out, an uptown bookie whose henchman specializes in facial deracination). Franco is about the new, the vital. To him, Superior Donuts is an oxymoron for these heart-smart times. He has plans for the business: how ’bout yogurt and bananas? Yeah! And poetry readings. Franco has a ready answer for every question. When Arthur says he’s had a ponytail for 40 years, Franco trumps him: “And you aren’t ashamed yet?”
So, Superior Donuts is an Oscar/Felix save the restaurant play? Not really. Arthur and Franco seem like opposites, but what grows is their commonality. Arthur knows a whole lot more than he’s letting on, and — if we can take Arthur at his word (and we learn to in time) — that bound stack of papers Franco lugs around and brags about may be the Great American Novel.
The opposites in Donuts aren’t sloth vs. fastidiousness or racial differences (though Letts explores them throughout). They are hope versus indifference. Franco brims with the former, and Arthur’s like an iceberg; or, better yet, he’s stuck in one.
The play has a facile, figure-eight-on-its-side structure: as one rises the other falls. But Letts muscles this skeleton not only with the 60-year history of the shop, but practically a history of Chicago: shifting ethnic geographies; Mayor Daley’s club-wielding thugs at the ’68 convention; replacement of mom-and-pop enterprises by corporate America. Donuts is set indoors, but, like few plays of this nature, Letts paints a detailed portrait of the changes outside.
Robin Sanford Roberts’s detailed set for the Rep’s production could pass for an Edward Hopper diner — if you don’t count a duct-taped stool, a patina of grease throughout, and that wavy, mildewed waterline on the rear wall, which you can almost smell. Except for the trays and metal shelves that shine with use, and thanks to M. Scott Grabau’s now moody/now bright lighting, the doughnut shop’s an exact reflection of Arthur’s state of mind.
People have compared Superior Donuts to sitcoms. And parts are as funny, if not more, especially when Franco goes on a “dozens” jag and rockets one-liners at Arthur. But have you ever heard the word “cowardice” taken seriously in a sitcom? Plus, they wouldn’t dare stage Arthur’s probing monologues. The lights dim, and he carefully opens up. Events in the past “derailed” him. And though it’s safer to remain that way, somehow he overcomes his past.
The second he walks onstage, as if to a different, languid drummer, Robert Foxworth is Arthur Przybyszewski. At first his aura’s a dim bulb, which he slowly illumines from within. Watching Foxworth’s excellent work is like watching a photograph develop from blur to vague to clarity. How Foxworth builds that progression, from moment to moment, constitutes acting at its best.
Superior Donuts has a manic-depressive quality: it can spin on a dime from blazing comedy to heartfelt drama. Much credit to director Sam Woodhouse and to Foxworth for expert shifts of mood — no transitions, just instant flips from sunshine to midnight.
Performances are tops all around. Anthony B. Phillips plays Franco with a body as agile as his mind (at one point doing a gymnastic leap to the counter). Rep favorite DeAnna Driscoll and Keith Jefferson excel as Chicago cops Randy Osteen and James Bailey — and don’t stereotype them, either: Bailey’s hobby pushes hard against type. Dimiter D. Marinov earns many laughs as the selectively racist Russian, Max Tarasov. Stephen Morgan, Kathryn Herbruck, Brian Abraham, and Tyler Herdklotz also make valuable contributions. ■
Superior Donuts, by Tracey Letts.
San Diego Repertory Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown.
Directed by Sam Woodhouse; cast: Robert Foxworth, Anthony B. Phillips, Dimiter D. Marinov, DeAnna Driscoll, Keith Jefferson, Kathryn Herbruck, Stephen Morgan-MacKay, Tyler Herdklotz, Brian Abraham; scenic design, Robin Sanford Roberts; costumes, Kate Stallons; lighting, M. Scott Grabau; sound, Tom Jones, fight director, James Newcomb.
Playing through March 6; Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-544-1000.