Robert Tanitch reviews Superior Donuts at Southwark Playhouse
Chicago playwright Tracy Letts is the author of August: Osage County, the Pulitzer Prize winning play, a classic American dysfunctional family drama, which has been filmed with Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts and is on release in cinemas now. So this is a good moment to be staging his latest play.
A middle-aged American, a former 1960’s radical and draft-dodger, runs a ramshackle donut shop in Uptown Chicago which was founded by his immigrant Polish parents. Business is terrible. Starbucks is across the road. No one wants donuts any more. The shop has been damaged by vandals. He employs a young African American who wants to update the shop and turn it into a meeting place for poets.
The strength of the play is the relationship and banter between the two men, a generational conflict between deep pessimism and high optimism. Will the 21-year old, who has written a novel and owes some gangster bookmakers a lot of money, be able to snap him out of his apathy?
Ned Bennett’s production is well acted. Mitchell Mullen is the pony-tailed, ageing hippie gone to seed. Jonathan Livingstone is the smart energetic, brash and extremely likeable youngster. The reporting of the horrifying brutality he suffers off-stage audibly upsets the audience.
The more Superior Donuts sticks with these two characters the better it is. The supporting characters include a female cop (who fancies the donut maker), a bag lady who expects freebies, and an exuberant Russian DVD proprietor who owns the shop next door and wants to buy him out. The final scene owes something to Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard.