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Theater review: 'Superior Donuts' at Geffen Playhouse

June 9, 2011 |  4:08 pm

Superior donuts 1 

In real life, odd couples can be tiresome with their bickering and bellyaching, but in the theater they’re usually a source of comic bliss. And there’s a memorable one on display right now at the Geffen Playhouse, where Tracy Letts’ absorbing comedy “Superior Donuts” opened Wednesday under the direction of Randall Arney.

Arthur Przybyszewski (Gary Cole) is the proprietor of a rundown doughnut shop in a part of Chicago that went downhill years ago and never came back. An old hippie with a graying ponytail, few words and defeated eyes, he looks as beaten down as the neighborhood where his store has just been broken into.

Franco Wicks (Edi Gathegi), a 21-year-old African American go-getter who’s been writing the Great American Novel, bangs on the shop door inquiring about a job. The lights are out and Arthur, a little high from smoking a joint and more than a little down from the difficult memories he’s been sifting through, tells him he’s closed. Franco, however, won’t take no for an answer. His energy and optimism are self-charging, and he impresses Arthur as a bright kid who deserves a break, not realizing that it’s Franco who’s offering him the lifeline.

Superior donuts 2The play is like a human chemistry experiment that sets out to discover what will happen when a sullen, disappointed baby boomer opens himself up to a young dreamer who, despite his hardships (and a gambling debt that won’t go away), feels certain that the best is yet to come.

Mired in guilt over his Polish immigrant father, who never forgave him for evading the Vietnam War draft, Arthur has carried on the family business with an emotional numbness that surely hastened the demise of his marriage. His parents and ex-wife all dead, his daughter estranged from him, he finds himself unable to move forward, and his appearance is like a billboard announcing to all the world that he’s stuck.

“I hate to break it to you, but the Grateful Dead ain’t gonna hire a new guitar player,” Franco teases him, trying to get his boss to spruce up and ask the female cop (Mary Beth Fisher) who’s clearly interested in him out on a date.

The only thing that seems to rouse Arthur from his torpor is the genuine enthusiasm he has for Franco’s manuscript. But impressed as he is by the storytelling, he can’t get himself to believe in happy endings. Experience has taught him that “life isn’t just what you wish for.” Idealism derailed his existence and he’d rather not see the same thing happen to Franco.

“Superior Donuts” struck me as a highly entertaining and unusually well-written sitcom when I first encountered the work on Broadway in 2009. The drama is formulaic, but the principal characters are deftly drawn, the wit is sharp and observant and there are enough surprise touches to keep you from getting too far ahead of the story. Compared with Letts’ epic blockbuster “August: Osage County,” one of the most decorated plays in recent history, this is a breezier work intended to please crowds. But it’s not frivolous. A rich vein of feeling runs through the drama, and though the second half gets patchy as a subplot involving an angry bookie (Paul Dillon) and his goon (Matt McTighe) takes up more space, our emotional interest in Arthur and Franco never flags.

The best thing about Arney’s production is the rapport between the two leads. As Franco, Gathegi is always in exuberant motion, busting out ecstatic dance moves at any sign of approval, quipping and exhorting with a breathlessness that is just as dizzying. He’s a charmer, and he works overtime to get a reaction from Arthur, who, as played by Cole, is withdrawn yet not impervious to this young man’s charisma. This old progressive’s dried-up heart can still be touched.

Arthur’s monologues, in which he fills us on his downbeat back story, are delivered by Cole in a sluggish style that aims for naturalness but lacks urgency. The draggy impression is that of a character in a Prozac ad before he went on the drug. On Broadway, Michael McKean infused these retrospective excursions with real intensity, which is what they really need.

The doughnut shop, conjured by John Arnone with a greasy vividness, is frequented by regulars, who are portrayed with zest by a solid supporting cast. The standouts are Ron Bottitta as Max, a gruffly friendly Russian businessman ready to seize the American dream; Kathryn Joosten as a semi-senile bag lady; and Fisher as a lovelorn cop on the beat with her partner (a fine Damon Gupton).

The title, by the way, of Franco’s book is “America Will Be.” The words are borrowed from a Langston Hughes poem, and they serve the undefeated stragglers of Letts’ “Superior Donuts” movingly well. 

--Charles McNulty

twitter.com\charlesmcnulty

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com 

"Superior Donuts,"Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Avenue, L.A. 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends July 10. $47 - $77. (310) 208-5454 or www.geffenplayhouse.com  Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes

Photos: Top: Gary Cole and Edi Gathegi. Bottom: Mary Beth Fisher and Cole. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times 

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