“Superior Donuts” serves up more than “dessert cakes”

By Ande Jacobson

Playwright and actor Tracy Letts describes Superior Donuts as involving a “clash of cultures”.  Letts intersperses some light moments and witty exchanges between several colorful and diverse characters with some darker, more serious situations.  Much of the story provides background on unseen family members and circumstances that encumber, or scar the visible characters.  The play is well written, and right from the start, the action turns the quaint little donut shop on its head.  In the first blackout at the top of the show, the shop is transformed from a neatly kept eatery into a disheveled establishment with chairs overturned, rubbish strewn everywhere, and graffiti on the wall.

First we meet Max (Doug Brook), a Russian immigrant from the shop next door, reporting (in very colorful language) what he saw to the police.  Officers James Bailey (Christopher Carter) and Randy Osteen (Stephanie Crowley) are taking it all down, bristling at the racial slurs that Max is throwing out.  Lady (Pat Tyler), a bedraggled homeless woman, wanders in with her cart wanting a donut, but James shoos her out.  Arthur (Ray Renati), the donut shop owner, finally enters during Max’s interrogation, nonchalantly picking up the odd paper from the floor, looking around at his shop in shambles.

After the commotion ends, Arthur is eventually left in his shop, alone.  He rolls a joint and starts telling the audience his back story.  As he gets into the story, Franco (Brandon Jackson) comes to the door seeking a job.  Arthur snaps back to reality.  He is blasé and a man of few words, at least to others, but Franco is animated, full of energy and purpose, and he’s quite the salesman.  There’s much about Franco we don’t know, and this is the beginning of a sort of surrogate father-son relationship between Arthur and Franco, although sometimes it’s not entirely clear which one is the father, and which is the son.

Rounding out the cast of characters are the unsavory Luther (Durand Garcia), his henchman Kevin (Alonzo Cook), and Max’s nephew Kiril (Chase Kinsey).

Ron Gasparinetti’s set captures the mood of a small donut shop from a recently bygone era.  The presentation of the counter, the donut display case, an archaic cash register, and even the soda fountain are quite effective.  There’s nice detailing down to the Open sign and blinds along the window.  Although the entire story takes place inside the donut shop, the redressing between scenes sometimes takes a bit longer than seems necessary.  Valerie Clear’s lighting design is crisp and effective utilizing decorative hanging lights to focus the shifts between reality and Arthur’s back story.  When the lights shift back to full, there’s a noticeable hum (perhaps added by sound designers Jeanie and Gordon Smith) that can be a little distracting.

Director Ann Kuchins strikes a nice balance in her staging.  She makes excellent use of the intimate space, and, working together with fight choreographer Richard Branden, creates a frighteningly real sense of urgency and danger.

Brook is appealing as Max, capturing an interesting inflection in his Russian-accented English.  While his dialect sounds a bit more Germanic than Slavic, his carriage sells his characterization.   Max has been in the country for eleven years, and he’s still struggling mightily with idiomatic English throwing out some very amusing mixed metaphors and missed clichés.  Brook comfortably bumbles about, his character quite at home in the shop and relaxed with Arthur.  Max has been trying for years to buy the shop from Arthur so he can expand his electronics store.  Later in the play, Brook has a scene where he carries on a conversation with Kiril in Russian which adds some additional flair.

Renati is smooth.  Arthur seems like a drugged-out hippie as he rolls a joint while he’s telling his back story having switched from current time to storytelling with a flip of the lights.  Renati’s delivery is quiet, relaxed, with more than a hint of apathy at first, but his Arthur is deceptively intelligent.  He and Jackson make an interesting pair, and the contrasts are striking.  One moment, they can appear to be the best of friends.  Then suddenly, they can be at odds in more of a “parent scolding the child” motif.  Jackson’s energy is contagious.  His Franco is spunky, likeable, and confident, and it’s fascinating to watch the relationship between the two men develop.

Crowley and Carter work well as a team, Crowley providing a bit of the softer, more understanding side as Randy, while Carter’s James is more rules oriented.  James wants to do right by everyone, and at one point, after an argument with his partner, exclaims “I hate having people mad at me.”  Crowley plays the somewhat smitten friend to Arthur nicely, her demeanor slightly coy, but her character is also a bit frustrated at his outward denseness.

Garcia and Cook are archetypical thugs.  Garcia’s Luther is articulate, maybe a bit too much so playing the mobster stereotype with a smooth veneer, and yet he’s menacing, especially when accompanied by his powerful enforcer.

Tyler’s Lady is the outsider.  She’s on the fringe for most of the play, turning up in quiet moments, seemingly out of touch, as Tyler captures the dazed aimlessness of a lost soul convincingly.  We later learn more about Lady and of her unexpected wisdom.

The Smiths’ sound design is functional.  Rock music (e.g., “I Had Too Much to Dream”) is played through the sound system during key scene changes and during the pre show, intermission, and post show periods, though the volume is a tad too high.

Superior Donuts is a strong production that provides an enjoyable evening’s entertainment.  There’s liberal use of profanity and some serious situations mixed with lighter moments to break the tension.  There are also a few surprises that are both startling and very well executed.  Through the course of the story, we even witness some rather creative uses for Arthur’s tasty dessert cakes.

What:  Superior Donuts

Where:  Pear Avenue Theatre, 1220 Pear Avenue, Unit K, Mountain View, CA 94043

When:  Continues through 14 July 2013, Thursdays-Saturdays at 8PM, Sundays at 2PM.

See www.thepear.org or call (650)254-1148 for tickets or more information.

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