Dubbed the “Sweet Season,” AthensWest Theatre’s 2016-2017 season of comedies opened last weekend with Tracy Letts’ “Superior Donuts.”
On the surface, “Superior Donuts” presents itself as a breezy, workplace sitcom, relying on a familiar intergenerational schtick, with the old and young lead characters intermittently butting heads for laughs. The show lives up to the levity of its confection-based title, with director Patrick Kagan-Moore’s cast capitalizing on humorous moments embedded in the easy-going pace, but the play isn’t the fluff you might expect. Letts situates the comedy right on the corner of post-recession economic weariness and the determined grit of the American dream.
Set in 2009, “Superior Donuts” centers on an ailing doughnut shop in Chicago and the strife-filled lives that intersect there. Its proprietor, Arthur Przybyszewski (Geoffrey Nelson), is barely able to operate his business, and it’s not just because of the economic quagmire, or the fact that doughnuts are falling out of fashion in favor of healthier, more hipster alternatives, or that the Starbucks on the corner foreshadows a looming gentrification. No, it is because he is depressed. His ex-wife recently died of cancer. In a series of intermittent monologues delivered with a kind of lackadaisical charm, a hallmark of his character, Nelson details his character’s biographical twists and turns, culminating in not so much a bitterness as an enduring ambivalence toward life, a cheerful but resigned hopelessness. He’s an aging hippie without a cause. There aren’t even any doughnuts in his doughnut shop.
Enter Franco Wicks,a young black writer eager for a job and full of ideas to improve the business. UK senior Kenny Hamilton creates a spirited foil for the change-averse Przybyszewski. He and Nelson share palpable chemistry, with their playful banter nabbing many of the evening’s biggest laughs. But sometimes their banter has an edge to it, an edge that leads to arguments about possibility versus probability, hope versus cynicism, and determination versus resignation.
The duo’s relationship and their separate obstacles form the core of the play’s structure, but it is perhaps those relationships that weave in and out — the neighbors — that elevate the play’s sophistication and cause the most nuanced reflection. For instance, Ryan Case’s charismatic portrayal of Max Tarasov, the Russian owner of a DVD store, provides the chief comic relief with his wry witticisms and Russian accent, but he is a testament to flawed human duality.
If Tarasov is desperate to claim the American dream, then Lady Boyle, a sweet-natured alcoholic played by Janet Scott, represents the futility of that dream for society’s most vulnerable. Scott might not take up a lot of stage time, but Lady’s occasional presence on the stage is a heartbreaking testament to the emotional damage endured by society’s most vulnerable.
What’s most timely about the play is that it’s an invitation to dwell on the American identity. Most of the characters are immigrants or children of immigrants, yet there is overt and covert tension among these groups, even as they share solidarity in the neighborhood.
How do we navigate this quagmire? The play’s poignantly stirring ending suggests that we start with friendship, connection and an awareness of what we have in common (dreams to better ourselves, helping our families thrive, purposeful work, etc.). That’s a timely and relevant reminder during this tumultuous election season.
Candace Chaney is a Lexington-based writer and critic.