November 18, 2010 | by Patrick Folliard
The odd couple

Superior Donuts

The Studio Theatre

1501 14th Street, N.W.

$45-$65

202-332-7267

Johnny Ramey, left, and Richard Cotovsky in 'Superior Donuts,' the current production at the Studio Theatre. (Photo by Carol Pratt; courtesy of Studio)

Donuts are Arthur Przybyszewski’s life, or so he says. Lately, the owner of the title establishment in Tracy Letts’ Chicago-set comedy “Superior Donuts” (currently playing at the Studio Theatre) has become progressively disinterested in his work.

Most days, the grizzled old stoner comes in late (if at all) and sometimes he neglects to place orders for new supplies. When the donut shop is vandalized, Arthur barely reacts. Two beat cops on the scene and Max, an angry Russian who owns the DVD shop next door, are more visibly concerned. And just when the business that Arthur inherited from his father seems doomed to fail, Franco Wicks, an energetic young black man from the neighborhood, asks Arthur for a job and things begin to change.

Letts’ uplifting work explores the blossoming – and unlikely — friendship between 60-year-old, burnt-out Arthur (an excellent Richard Cotovsky) and 21-year-old Franco wonderfully played by charismatic young actor Johnny Ramey. Throughout the work day, chatty Franco barrages his boss with suggestions including introducing heart-healthy alternatives to the menu and maybe a poetry night. He even suggests Arthur cut off his mangy pony tail and update his old hippie wardrobe.

As Franco proves himself a hard worker and a smart kid, Arthur slowly opens up to him, however two subjects — his late ex-wife and estranged 19-year-old daughter — remain wholly taboo. Boss and employee surprise one another: Franco is impressed that Arthur knows the names of 10 African-American poets, and conversely, Arthur is astonished to discover that his young assistant has written a truly good coming-of-age novel.

Between scenes, lights dim and Arthur speaks directly to the audience, revealing the past that he finds so hard to share with those around him. He talks about his rocky relationship with his late Polish immigrant father who came to Chicago from war torn Europe and opened the donut shop in Chicago’s then-already declining Uptown neighborhood. He recalls an activist youth and his fleeing to Canada to evade the draft. He remembers a comfortable but short-lived marriage, and his daughter. Beneath Arthur’s current somnambulant façade, there’s sadness and some regret.

Judging from his donut play, Letts, though no Pollyanna, is ultimately an optimist. He believes in the future and new beginnings. And while “Superior Donuts’” humor isn’t nearly as scathing as that of his Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway hit “August: Osage County,” it’s funny, entertaining and similarly tackles the grittier aspects of life. For instance, unable to repay a huge loan to neighborhood toughs, Franco suffers serious consequences. While this subplot doesn’t ring entirely true, it does force Arthur to experience feelings and reconnect to his more alive former self. It also opens the way for a first rate knock-down drag-out fistfight (props to fight choreographer Robb Hunter).

Russell Metheny’s realistic set is superb. It’s a grungy little shop under Chicago’s elevated train that looks like it hasn’t been touched since Arthur’s father opened it 60 years ago.

Gay director Serge Seiden draws terrific performances from Cotovsky and Ramey as well as the remainder of the talented cast who bring sensitivity to what could be stock portrayals. Standouts include Gregor Paslawsky as Max, the ruthless-but-somehow-likable Russian; Julie-Ann Elliott as Randy, a tough but shyly lovelorn lady cop; Chris Genebach as the local bad guy bookie; and Barbara Broughton’s Lady, an eccentric old woman who shows up each morning for free donuts and coffee before heading off to an AA meeting or a day of drinking at a local dive (depending on whatever the way the wind blows her).

As Kiril, Max’s brawny blonde nephew, Aaron Tone makes the most of a small role. In a beautifully played scene, Tone demonstrates a poignant glimmer of human tenderness in the wake of his vulgar uncle’s crude shenanigans — further evidence of Letts’ creeping optimism.

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