In Superior Donuts, which opened at the Reston Community Players last night, the new Starbucks across the street is taking business from a 60-year-old family-owned shop. It is a familiar story in America, and is one of the many ways this play reverberates with our current American story. Superior Donuts is the first play written by Tracy Letts after his Pulitzer Prize-winning, August: Osage County, and it does not disappoint. The show was so appealing that it spawned a TV adaptation that ran for two seasons in 2017 and 2018. In fact, even when some of the turns of the show seem familiar, this production, thoughtfully directed by Seth Ghitelman, is consistent, believable, and intensely satisfying.
Arthur Przybyszewski (Michael Kharfen) has inherited his father’s Chicago donut shop and barely keeps it going, with the limited motivation that he can find coming from an interesting mix of Polish pride and guilt. With mention of any reminder that sparks his guilt, Arthur clams up, so it takes a while to understand his pain, seemingly connected to his recently-deceased ex-wife. Arthur has been absent at the shop more frequently, lacking enough motivation for the shop to thrive. In fact, his life has stalled out, and his hippie lifestyle and pot-smoking are used to avoid facing his problems. With big acting choices, Kharfen plays Arthur with a physical looseness and instability that define his character intriguingly.
Bursting into the shop and Arthur’s life comes a young Black man, looking determinedly for a job. The soon-to-be hired new employee, Franco Wicks (Bryce Monroe) is the heart of the play, bringing an energy into the Superior Donuts shop that was lacking. Franco supplies such a rapid-fire stream of ideas to turn the shop around, that one questions whether he is hustling Arthur. Franco is a juggernaut, with a backstory that adds to the tension of the buddy story. Monroe’s energy and verbal dexterity are vital, and he builds sympathy for his character, who appears too smart and dynamic to be an employee in a struggling donut shop. Franco and Arthur’s friendship grows and is supported and challenged by other characters, well-played by a strong cast.
Hoping to buy Arthur’s shop is Max Tarasov (Tel Monks), who wants to expand his DVD store next door. Monks provides his Russian immigrant character with a believable accent and attitude. Lady Boyle (Sally Cusenza) is a homeless alcoholic, questionably tethered to reality, who frequents the shop. She receives handouts while dispensing observations that just might reflect coherent wisdom. The two other regulars are police officers James Bailey (Matthew McCarthy), who actively works to safeguard the neighborhood, and his partner, Randy Osteen (Mattie Cohan), who seems romantically interested in Arthur. The remaining characters include the menacing bookie/loan shark Luther Flynn (Ian Mark Brown), his sidekick/enforcer Kevin Magee (Michael King), and Max’s nephew Kiril Ivankin (Tice Rust).
The play takes place entirely in the run-down, abused donut shop, on a well-designed set by Maggie Modig. Lighting by Adam Konowe was able to isolate actors in soliloquies, even when the set was being altered elsewhere onstage. When the shop door was open to Chicago’s windy blasts, the lights and the sound, designed by William Chrapcynski, reflected the urban setting and rough weather just outside.
This excellent production has lots of humor and the dramatic mutual rescue of the two leads, while somewhat predictable, is carried out with tenderness. The bigger questions of the play look at what it really means to be an American.
Superior Donuts plays through February 2, 2019. It is produced by the Reston Community Players, performing at the Centerstage, Reston Community Center, 2310 Colts Neck Road, Reston, VA. You may purchase tickets at the door, by phone 703-476-4500, or online.