Superior Donuts is satisfyingly sweet

Aren’t we fascinated when real people live up to well-worn stereotypes?​ The characters in Superior Donuts seem like stereotypes, but they embody realistic contradictions, which makes them endearingly plumb.

Isaih Anderson (left) and Tim McNamara bring nuance and heart to thinly scripted roles in the Live Arts production of Superior Donuts.

When I say that protagonist Arthur Przybyszewski (Robert McNamara) is an old hippie, you know, superficially, just who he is. He smokes reefer to self-medicate, quotes John Lennon and has more hair in his ponytail than on top of his head. But, he’s also a deadbeat dad. He curses a nearby Starbucks while patronizing the franchise. He uses violence to settle a score. We like this guy, and we also understand him.

Live Arts’ Superior Donuts, written by Tracy Letts and directed by Mendy St. Ours and Chris Baumer, bets its smarts and big heart against a formulaic story and wins. McNamara offers a wonderful performance, imbuing a stock character with genuine joy, desperation and anger. Isaih Anderson’s Franco Wicks never steps incorrectly. Franco is a budding Ralph Ellison who needs an income to pay off some very looming debts. He’s too cocksure for his own good, and probably too talented to be working in a donut shop.

The casting is impeccable; a melting pot of characters who are just quirky enough to be plausible. The Russian owner (Sean Michael McCord) of a neighboring DVD shop is affable, despite being a drunk and a racist. Local cop James Bailey (Jason Duvalle Jones), is a caring Trekkie. Randy Osteen (Geri Schirmer), also a cop, is a middle-aged hot pot with a crush on Przybyszewski. Newcomer Diane Key, as Lady Boyle, steals every scene she is in. Even a minor character, Kiril (Shawn Hirabayashi), gives us a shy thug. Ever know one of those? 

Kathryn Springmann’s scenery pulls off the seemingly impossible feat of making Live Arts’ UpStage seem spacious. The use of wainscoting to serve as both a definition of the shop’s floorplan and a banister for the audience is clever.

Accidentally underscoring Friday evening’s performance was a live band at The Box playing a never-ending blues riff, but oddly enough, it kind of worked. The actual soundtrack choices, via Live Arts veteran John Holdren—including Gil Scott-Heron, Public Enemy and Hendrix’s “Machine Gun”—were obvious but spot-on. 

Superior Donuts is a bit saccharin at times. It hopes to be about race and gentrification, but those conflicts are ultimately story garnishes. A final showdown rings false. We expect something more tragic, perhaps a death or a foreclosure, but it never happens. These are transient concerns of an enjoyable script served well by an honest and mature production.

Superior Donuts is engaging, smart, hilarious and often touching. It won’t change your life the way Godot or Lear might, but it does lovingly and truthfully leave you with new ideas. And hey, whatever gets you through the night, it’s alright.

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