To start its 2019/2020 season, Shea’s 710 Theatre has partnered with Road Less Traveled Productions to present “Superior Donuts”, a show from acclaimed playwright Tracy Letts (of “August: Osage County” fame) that tackles topical sociopolitical issues like race and gentrification, but more importantly, spotlights a friendship between an aging hippie who’s stuck in his ways, and a young black man desperately trying to bring him into the 21st century.
. . .funny and touching. . .
“Superior Donuts” tells the story of Arthur Przybyszewski (Steve Jakiel), the owner of the decrepit donut shop from whence the play gets its name; it’s a staple of Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, which has been in Arthur’s family for 60+ years. Finding himself in need of a new assistant, Arthur hires Franco (Jake Hayes) a young college-aged African-American man who, as we come to learn, is desperately in-need of a job in order to continue supporting his mother, and to pay off steep gambling debt to a local bookie. With the donut shop struggling financially, Franco makes suggestions for improvement and modernization to the often-reluctant Arthur, who punctuates the story with regular monologues about his daughter, ex-wife, and past as a draft-dodging hippie.
Jakiel and Hayes absolutely shine in the leading roles of Arthur and Franco, with Jakiel masterfully playing the grumpy curmudgeon who is surprisingly educated and open-minded, and Hayes playing the enterprising young Franco who has a gift for writing. The chemistry between these two actors is organic and palpable, one that either comes naturally or was honed through hours and hours of intense rehearsal (or both). Regardless, it’s completely magnetic and is the foundation of this production.
Rounding out the cast are a handful of smaller supporting roles, all of which add color and context to the setting of “Superior Donuts.” Most notable are Max Tarasov (John Profeta), the flamboyant Russian owner of the DVD shop next door, Lady Boyle (Tina Rausa), the bag lady who frequents the shop, and Officer Randy Osteen (Lisa Vitrano), the neighborhood cop with a sweet spot for Arthur.
Even though it’s only 10 years old, it’s striking how remarkably well “Superior Donuts” has aged. Our culture is awash with well-intentioned plays and films that attempt to heavy-handedly address important racial themes, and end up coming across as a little too “white savior-y” (one need look no further that 2018’s Oscar-winning “Green Book” for a prime example). Tracy Letts had the foresight to not lead “Superior Donuts” down that road; there are no white saviors, and at the end of the show’s two acts our main characters haven’t tidily solved racism. “Superior Donuts” gently explores themes of class and, yes, sometimes race (there’s an impactful moment where Arthur actually concedes that he probably harbors some implicit racism), but it’s mainly about two new friends who learn to challenge and protect each other.
I listened to a podcast recently in which the hosts were discussing the film “The Shawshank Redemption”, and they described it as “not so much a prison movie as a romance movie about two best friends.” At the time it struck me as a curious description, but upon further reflection I realized that it was absolutely spot-on. Fans of “Shawshank” know that prison is certainly the backdrop, but the movie is really about the deep, meaningful friendship that unfolds between Andy and Red over the course of their years behind bars together. The podcasters were making the point that this storytelling format is more common with romance movies than in prison thrillers, and it occurs to me that “Superior Donuts” could be summarized the same way; “a romance movie about two best friends.” Sure, “Superior Donuts” flirts with issues like race, gentrification, and even the protest movements of the 1960’s, but the real thematic weight lies with the friendship that develops and grows between Arthur and Franco during the course of the play, and how that friendship becomes a saving grace in both of their lives. To Arthur, Franco becomes an adopted son of sorts, someone to encourage and protect, but also to help pull him and his shop into the 21st century.
“Superior Donuts” is a funny and touching production, and a thoughtful collaboration between two of Buffalo’s finest theatre institutions. It’s also an important play to revisit, given the cultural and political backdrop of 2019.
“Superior Donuts” is playing at Shea’s 710 Theatre until October 27th. For tickets and more information, click here.