February 18, 2014 5:35 pm

Superior Donuts, Southwark Playhouse, London – review

A neighbourhood business in Chicago becomes a microcosm in Tracy Letts’ entertaining play
Michael Mullen and Jonathan Livingstone in ‘Superior Donuts’©Elliott Franks

Michael Mullen and Jonathan Livingstone in ‘Superior Donuts’

The merciless progress of time makes all manner of one-time innovations suddenly redundant: the spinning jenny, the videotape and, as Arthur Przybyszewski is discovering the hard way, the humble handmade doughnut. The successful little business he inherited from his immigrant Polish father, purveying “superior” doughnuts to the busy people of Chicago, is struggling, squeezed out by big chain coffee shops and health fads. Should he give up and sell up to his commercial neighbour, a pushy Russian eager to expand his DVD rental empire? Or, as Franco, Arthur’s new young assistant suggests, should he diversify, moving into poetry readings and healthy alternatives, such as bran muffins (a suggestion that Arthur greets as if Franco had proposed frying dough in the nude)?

Tracy Letts’ entertaining play (given its UK premiere here in Ned Bennett’s engaging production) never budges from Arthur’s shabby premises, but it is of course a microcosm, touching on intergenerational and inter-ethnic tensions, the tattered American dream, the shifting nature of aspiration and the grinding realities of economic strain. Letts even includes a character who is (somewhat implausibly) trying to write the Great American Novel. In keeping with its subject, it ends up being a little sugary and overcooked: this is certainly not vintage Letts. But it is still a sharp, compassionate and often very funny play about survival and the nature of hope.

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Arthur, a dog-eared, laconic individual, is a relic of battered Sixties optimism, with a greying ponytail and a line in saggy T-shirts and resignation. Played here by Michael Mullen, he comes over as a man whose answer to life’s trials is to retreat. When the play opens, his shop has just been vandalised, a trauma he responds to with a shrug. But then Franco arrives, a 21-year-old African American full of spiky energy (a lovely performance by Jonathan Livingstone). He tries to revive Arthur, get him to engage again in business, life and love. Franco, however, has demons of his own.

The jam at the centre of this doughnut is Arthur’s personal past, which he reveals, gradually, in monologues straight to the audience. A draft-dodger, he has never quite recovered from his father’s scorn and the crippling insult of “coward”. But when things get rough for Franco, he finally rallies. Bristling with one-liners, working up to a desperate fight, this is nonetheless a play about love and about spotting second chances, however modest, and taking them.



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