When people ask me what to do when visiting my hometown of Chicago, I suggest that after strolling through the Art Institute and enjoying a dinner of deep-dish pizza, they should take in some theater. Specifically, I point them toward the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, which came of age around the same time I did, and continues to present some of the most viscerally intense theater to be seen on any stage in America.
Fortunately, Steppenwolf’s work has become so popular that now you only have to drive to Los Angeles to check it out. Two years ago, the amazing August: Osage County, written by Steppenwolf member Tracy Letts, toured to the Ahmanson Theatre after its successful Broadway run. And for the next four weeks, Superior Donuts, Letts’s deliciously satisfying follow-up, has settled in at the Geffen Playhouse.
It’s a small, relatively gentle play (only one onstage fist fight!), but an engrossing, enormously entertaining one. Letts specializes in injecting new life into familiar genres: August was his version of a Eugene O’Neill-type dysfunctional family drama. Superior Donuts is a variation on the basic odd-couple buddy story in which two dissimilar people are thrown together, their life trajectories intersecting at a key moment for each.
The central characters are Arthur Przybyszewski (Gary Cole), owner and proprietor of a doughnut shop in a rundown Chicago neighborhood, and Franco Wicks (Edi Gathegi), the hyper-enthusiastic, 21-year-old black man he hires as his assistant. An ex-hippie who wears his gray hair in a ponytail, Arthur, who is pushing 60, has pretty much given up on life. Franco, in contrast, is raring to get started.
Arthur fled to Canada to avoid serving in the Vietnam War. As he pointedly explains, he was a draft evader rather than a draft resister, the difference being that “resisters fight.” Arthur has never fought for much of anything; he has passively drifted through life, letting his marriage fall apart, his daughter move away, and the family business (he inherited Superior Donuts following his parents’ death) wither.
When Franco proposes making some changes at the shop—what about music? posters? or a poetry night?—Arthur responds with disinterest, followed by disdain. “Life is derailment,” he lectures Franco; better to settle. But Franco, driven by a potent combination of talent and desperate financial need, has to believe in the future. The present is simply too menacing.
Sentimentality is always a danger in this sort of scenario, but it’s skirted here thanks to Letts’s sharp characterizations, his often very funny dialogue, and a nuanced, sensitive Geffen Playhouse production. While they’re based in L.A., both Cole and director Randall Arney remain members of the Steppenwolf company, and they deeply understand its aesthetic.
While the mesmerizing Gathegi (best known for his role in the Twilight movies) dances around the stage with nervous energy, Cole (who plays the ballistics expert on The Good Wife who has the hots for Christine Baranski) brings a sad heaviness to Arthur. For this man, every sentence is painful, or at least exhausting, to get out; one senses the effort he expends just getting through the day. This makes his eventual reawakening all the more moving.
Kathryn Joosten from Desperate Housewives and The West Wing has both some heart-wrenching and some very amusing moments as an alcoholic homeless woman who is a regular customer. She’ll accept a ride to either an AA meeting or a bar—it makes no difference to her. Ron Bottitta as the hot-tempered Russian émigré who runs the DVD shop next door is similarly vivid; his desperation to achieve the American dream provides touching subtext to his hilarious, over-the-top rants.
Superior Donuts plays nightly except Monday through July 10 at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Avenue in Westwood. Matinees are at 3 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. For ticket information, go to www.geffenplayhouse.com, or call (310) 208-5454.