By the Reston Community Players
Tracey Lett’s won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for his play August: Osage County and he quickly followed up that work with Superior Donuts. Despite receiving less critical acclaim (and a limited Broadway run) the play set in a donut shop in Chicago spawned a now canceled CBS sitcom of the same name and has become a popular choice for small professional and community theatres.
Maddie Modig’s donut shop set is functional, if a little sparse, and lacking in the extra detail that elevates one location shows to the next level. The view outside the shop window adds extra depth to our world but the painted backdrop is not convincing. The sound design is effectively one wind cue repeated every time the door to the shop is opened. Chicago is windy. Check.
The play centers around the relationship between donut shop owner Arthur Przybyszewski (Michael Karfen) an ageing white man who was a 60s radical, and Franco Wicks (Bryce Monroe) a young African American man looking for a job and with dreams of becoming a writer. Unfortunately it never quite feels like the pair of them are in the same play – Karfen feels like he’s in that sitcom version – and the audience at times is willing to provide an accompanying laughter track. The problem is this is a play with so many larger than life peripheral characters who add heightened comedic moments that it just isn’t needed from one of the main characters. The writing for Arthur is funny it doesn’t need to be played funny. Monroe, in contrast, is in a dramedy and is fresh, funny and honest and you can’t help but smile at some of the little character choices he makes.
The disconnect in styles between the leads is the major issue for director Seth Ghitelman and it’s one that the production really can’t overcome. Scenes are connected with soliloquies from Arthur but there doesn’t seem to be any justification for Karfen to find his way into Adam Konowe’s lighting apart from knowing that was where he was supposed to be. The impact of these personal moments is also lessened by the punch line driven approach of the character.
Tel Monks is pure pantomime as the Russian businessman, Max Tarasov, and in a more grounded production he would have been the ridiculous that we were willing to embrace. It’s a little too much here but there is no denying Monks’ comic timing. Mattie Cohan plays Officer Randy Osteen and is another to embrace the sitcom style with a highly affected Chicago accent that no-one else in the cast attempts.
The plot centers around the gambling debt of Franco but Monroe is the only one giving us a sense that we should really be invested in the seriousness of his predicament. This is hammered home by the stage fight (with two choreographers listed – Karen Schlumpf and Ian Claar) that is funny for all the wrong reasons. The action is far too ambitious and is brought all the way down to the apron of the stage so it’s clear just how safe the actors are being…
The performance of Bryce Monroe is the highlight of a production that is certainly lighthearted fun at times. At the heart of this script, however, is a genuine friendship that crosses race and generations and that feels unexplored here.
The ticket price is high for community theatre at $28 and on this occasion we cannot recommend it as value for money.
Superior Donuts continues at the Reston Community Center until February 2nd. https://restonplayers.org/