Humor and calories abound in Maryland Ensemble Theatre’s production of Superior Donuts, written by Tracy Letts and directed by Gené Fouché. Set in uptown Chicago, the play follows the story of Polish-American Arthur Przybyszewski (Tad Janes) and his struggle to keep his donut shop afloat. The shop has fallen on hard times and is increasingly sinking into public obscurity, but finds new spirit through the hired hand of young African-American Franco Wicks (Najee Banks). Arthur just wants to sell donuts but Franco wants to revamp the shop by introducing zesty concerts and healthy foods. Franco and Arthur form an unlikely but enduring friendship, and much of the play’s comedy is derived from their interactions.
Tad Janes provides a believable performance and his Arthur comes across as nonchalant and agreeable. Through his relaxed tone and saunter, he acts as the laid-back backbone of the play, his quirky hippie vibe perfectly contrasting the exuberant street-smartness of Franco. Janes makes good use of pauses, at times using the beats to visibly demonstrate his thought processes One of my favorite scenes is when Arthur is put up to a “racist test” by Franco, where Arthur has to correctly name ten black poets or lose a bet. The play is full of surprises, and Janes delivers.
Najee Banks performs a phenomenal job here as Franco, emitting a bright and natural energy that proved to be infectious. Franco has some old debts to pay and starts working for minimum wage at the “Superior Donuts” shop, but he makes the most of it; eventually, there is a role-reversal and Franco ends up showing his boss Arthur the ropes when it comes to relationship. There is very clear character progression seen through Franco—he has a dream of publishing the “next great American novel,” and I was eager to see how it would all unfold.
Whether Banks was laughing, crying, singing, or air-guitar riffing with a broom, he was always a joy to watch. This being his professional acting debut only makes his performance all the more impressive.
Another character who greatly contributed to the personality of the play was Max (Reiner Prochaska), a Russian immigrant who wants to buy Arthur’s shop and will seemingly stop at no means to get it. Prochaska completely nails the Russian accent throughout, hearkening to the James Bond villains of old. Max is a cheery, spritely, and well-meaning character, seemingly unaware of his biases and peculiarities, and was a consistent source of comic relief.
All the other players were excellent in their respective roles An old seemingly homeless lady (Julie Herber) who doesn’t always seem completely lucid often drifts into the donut shop; she was the only character who actually made the middle-aged Arthur seem somewhat young and normal, which added much-needed perspective to the play.
The Chicago police officers James (Giovanni Kavota) and Randy (Laura Stark) offer endearing and genuine performances, furthering the play’s diversity. Luther (Tim Seltzer) is a menacing man to whom Franco owes a debt, and Seltzer gives a very powerful performance here. With his deliberate tone, movement through the space, and contact with the other characters, he exudes his authority onstage; Seltzer is superb at keeping tension high and leaving the audience wondering how he will react next. His younger partner Kevin (Matt Lee) was also fantastic at sustaining this sinister air, and often telegraphed his thoughts through his facial movements.
Finally, Max’s partner Kiril (Tom Majarov) is the silent-but-tough guy with a sweet side, and Majarov pulled this off with aplomb. The final climactic fight between the characters is intense and has to be seen to be believed.
With his donut shop set, Ira Domser did an excellent job of establishing a sense of atmosphere, which fits perfectly with the theater space. Because all the seats are so close to the stage, it truly feels like the audience is in the shop with them. With barstools, an old tin register, and a rotary telephone, coupled with oldies rock music, the set provided a 60’s motif that hearkened back to Arthur’s hippie heyday. At times Arthur would deliver soliloquies that acted as interludes between scenes—these were punctuated by dimmed, colored lights, an interesting choice by Lighting Designer Chris Holland- as these soliloquies helped to color his backstory. Because the donut shop was seedy-looking, with ripped posters, overturned chairs, and cracked walls, it gave the set a gritty and realistic feel that helped convey the raw nature of uptown Chicago, as well as the age of the shop. The costumes by Cody Gilliam were colorful but still maintained their sense of realism; whether through Arthur’s tie-dye shirt, Luther’s sleek black coat, or the tattered rags of the old lady, the costumes helped to supplement the characters’ personalities. The proximity of the seating made it possible to appreciate all the effort that went into the costumes and set design.
Superior Donuts is a theatrical treat glazed with comedy and sprinkled with salient themes like diversity, immigration, racism, generation gap, ambition, redemption, and reinvention of self. The dynamics between the actors keep things tasty as they develop into something more tangible over time. So pull up a chair and stop in for a delicious ‘donut-drama’ at Maryland Ensemble Theatre. This is one shop I would love to visit again and again.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.