Time to make the donuts, again

Tracey Letts' Chicago-set play returns

11/07/2012 10:00 PM

Phil Morehart
Contributing Reporter

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Preston Tate Jr. and Richard Cotovsky in Superior Donuts. Courtesy Greg Rothman

Superior Donuts has become the quintessential Chicago production. The acclaimed play by Tracey Letts (Killer Joe, August: Osage County) encapsulates the city’s history and its ups and downs in a fast two hours.

The pros and cons of gentrification, racism, rising crime and Chicago’s past as a seat of civil unrest bubble through Lett’s play, which follows the goings-on at a rundown donut shop in the Uptown neighborhood, specifically the relationship between the shop’s curmudgeonly ex-hippie activist proprietor Arthur and his new employee, Franco, a young, eternally energetic and optimistic black man who dreams of becoming a famous writer. A mentor/student dynamic develops, but it’s not typical. Roles switch throughout. Arthur and Franco both support and resist each other, laughing together one minute and screaming the next as they celebrate successes and fight demons.

Superior Donuts is breezy, light and hilarious, but the levity doesn’t diminish the seriousness with which it tackles important social issues. This fearlessness allowed the play to become not only a regional success, but an international one, as well.

The play began its life at Steppenwolf in 2008, before moving to Broadway the next year. Critical lauds and a Tony nomination for an original cast member followed. Letts and company received the accolades, but Chicago was a recipient, as well. The world shared and understood our concerns.

Now, it’s back in its hometown with a new mounting at the Royal George Cabaret by Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company. This is Mary-Arrchie’s second presentation of the play, following a massively successful 12-week-long, sold-out run last season. Their current production promises to follow suit.

Mary-Arrchie founding member and artistic director Richard Cotovsky returns as Arthur Przybyszewski, the donut shop owner. Physically, he is the absolute embodiment of his character. He looks every bit the grizzled, burned-out hippie content to waste away his final years smoking dope. Performances aren’t made by looks alone, though. Cotovsky’s performance has a lived-in authenticity.

Cotovsky’s Arthur comes alive in the small details. A defeated, shuffled walk. Exasperated shrugs. Stoned, but intelligent eyes. A sly smile that reveals a tack sharp mind behind the apathy. It’s a wonder to watch.

Preston Tate, Jr. reprises his role as Franco Wicks, as well. Tate earned a Jeff Award nomination for his performance in Mary-Arrchie’s earlier run of Superior Donuts. It’s easy to see why. He is a bundle of wide-eyed energy. Always talking, always moving. His Franco is impossible not to root for, even when his troubles threaten to destroy everything for which he and Arthur have worked.

The rest of the cast is far from being mere auxiliary players, though. They’re responsible for most of the play’s comic relief, particularly Paige Smith as Max, the tracksuit wearing Russian who runs the video store next to Superior Donuts. Every word uttered garners laughs.

Marry-Archie stages Superior Donuts in Royal George’s small, black box cabaret. It’s the perfect setting for the play. The audience is on top of the action. The intimate environment counteracts the play’s light tone, allowing realism to have equal footing. The close proximity makes the characters real, even when situations turn farcical, as they do during a fight scene in act two. The punches, kicks, and blood are ridiculously fake, but the characters’ pain is very real.

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