If it’s a portrait of urban gentrification or Starbuckization or race relations you’re looking for, Tracy Letts’ Superior Donuts (at the Lyric Stage through February 4th) isn’t the play for you. These heady themes hover over the play’s down-and-out Chicago doughnut shop setting like the scent of deep fryer grease, but never quite drop. Shots are fired at the Starbucks across the street, but our ponytailed Deadhead Arthur Przybyszewski (played with great sympathy by Will LeBow) isn’t even that interested in running a business, but only holding onto it so he has a reason to get up in the morning. Racial tensions ensue between Arthur and his new assistant Franco (played by Omar Robinson, who I’m happily sure we’ll be seeing more of), but are little more than literary trivia matches.
The play is dominated by sweeter things; an awkward burgeoning romance between Arthur and local tomboy lady-cop Randy (Karen MacDonald); Arthur and Franco finding in each other the things they lack most, a son and a father; and Arthur finding, in himself, “courage”. This latter plot point is an odd one and is mostly responsible for the drawn-out awkwardness of Superior Donuts‘ second act. Before inheriting the doughnut shop from his immigrant father, Arthur, we find out through a series of dimly lit monologues, was a draft dodger and, later, a failure at his first attempt at love and fatherhood. He’s a man who prefers a session with the herbal contraband he keeps stashed in a cookie tin under the counter to vocal or physical confrontation. Arthur seems to discover (or perhaps re-discover) his manhood (i.e. his ability to love, or at least ask out, a woman, and father, at least surrogately, a son) by starting a fist fight, and winning.
Who’s Arthur fighting? Gangsters. Franco, who first surprises us with his business acumen, and again with his Finding Forester-like literary talent, surprises us a final time by being in deep with his old bookie Luther (played a little cartoonishly, but with a lot of eccentric charisma by Christopher James Webb). One might presume that Letts is trying to challenge the audience’s racial predispositions with all these curveballs, but it really just becomes a lot to swallow. Most everything in Superior Donuts (including the black trekkie cop and the violence) is there to tug at our heart strings in the play’s warm and comic portrayal of an urban village…one might even say family. A strong, and frankly impressive, cast across the board carries Letts’ light wit and deep inter-character connections flawlessly. Matthew Whiton’s incredibly detailed set provides a sitcom like setting that, by the end of the play, we can’t help but feel attached to just as the characters are.