Horizon Theatre has a fine cast for Tracy Letts’ play “Superior Donuts,” running through March 27. Mr. Letts’ titanic 2008 Pulitzer-Tony-winning “August: Osage County” is, of course, his most acclaimed work to date; and I suppose the downside of having written a knockout hit is that people almost always want to compare it with the rest of a playwright’s work.
But it’s a pointless exercise. “Superior Donuts,” written as a valentine to his adopted hometown of Chicago (according to the program notes), stands quite well on its own.
Arthur Przybyszewski (wanna pronounce it?), played by Chris Kayser, is a 60-year-old ex-hippie running a coffee and donut shop in Chicago’s Uptown. Arthur is spinning his wheels, mired in inertia, and when there’s a break-in at his shop, he’s pretty ho-hum about it all. He reminds me of Fraulein Schneider in “Cabaret” when she sings “So What.” He has definitely settled; but even as he smokes his morning joint, you feel that here’s a man with a lot of might-have-beens in his life, and he knows it.
Into his life pops a 21-year-old African-American man named Franco Wicks (Eric J. Little). Franco needs a job, but he is bubbling with energy and ideas—for example, he has a list of much-needed improvements for Superior Donuts, especially if it’s going to compete with the Starbucks universe. Franco has the glory and power and magnetism of youth on his side, and soon the crusty old draft-dodger Arthur succumbs to Franco’s zest. Their repartee is great fun for the audience.
But there’s more: Franco has written a novel which he is certain will be The Great American Novel, and he asks Arthur to read it. He does, and he’s astonished at how good it is and tells Franco, who is over the moon. There’s an ominous note at this point, however: Franco owes money to some shady characters (played by Bryan Brendle and Alan Heckner) and Chicago is, after all, the “city of the big shoulders,” as Carl Sandburg said. There are shocking repercussions; enough said.
About the fine cast I mentioned: Lala Cochran is excellent as a police officer who’s fond of Arthur; Bart Hansard plays an ambitious Russian who owns a DVD store next door; Nita Hardy plays Lady Boyle, a “street person,” and Ms. Hardy is spot-on. Neal Hazard and Sean Michael Moreno complete this very strong ensemble: no weak links here. Incidentally, I’d love to see Mr. Brendle play a character unafraid to show a tender, vulnerable side. I’m sure he’s played such roles, but lately he seems to have a patent on tough, dangerous men, whom he plays very well indeed.
Mr. Kayser and Mr. Little basically own the evening. It’s nice to see the legendary Mr. Kayser play a character of such passivity; but this actor can play anything. I think that the dynamic Mr. Little has a stunning future; he’s the real thing. See him here before you have to pay Broadway-New York prices!
The playwright slows things down unnecessarily with Arthur’s monologues; but aside from that Director Jeff Adler guides us with a sure hand. This is a play with people “proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning,” to quote Sandburg once more. There are some real surprises here; I’d check them out.
For tickets and information, visit www.HorizonTheatre.