Playwright Tracy Letts is best known for searing tales of dysfunction and psychological breakdown, such as the Pulitzer-winning August: Osage County and Bug, the latter of which was recently produced locally by Raleigh Ensemble Players. Yet his play Superior Donuts, currently playing at Deep Dish in Chapel Hill, is less a drama about doomed souls in a pitiful bake shop (The Glaze Man Cometh?) and more of an old-fashioned, well-crafted crowd-pleaser.
The eponymous uptown Chicago eatery serves as the sole location for the action, a classic employer-employee father-son story. Arthur, the white ex-hippie owner (David Sennett) is a ponytailed soul in such a haze that he can barely deign to notice when his place is vandalized. Into this world comes Franco (J. Alphonse Nicholson), a young African-American dreamer whose motor mouth spits out ideas and one-liners with equal speed.
Though Arthur occasionally addresses the audience in monologues about his 1960s past, the story stays mostly linear as Arthur and Franco develop a kinship based around Franco's constant suggestions for improving the restaurant. Arthur finally allows himself to dream as well, after reading Franco's handwritten "Great American Novel" (like we said, it's an old-fashioned story). Though Franco helps lift Arthur out of his funk, his personal problems threaten his own dreams, causing Arthur to take potentially dangerous steps that are for his own good as much as his friend's.
There are hints of Letts' typical psychological darkness and emotional violence throughout Superior Donuts—a key plot point involves a menacing gangster, leading to a protracted fistfight at the climax—but tone down the language here, and you'd have something akin to such TV "loser-coms" as Taxi or Cheers, which are similarly set in places where deferred dreamers commingle. And really, that's a compliment: Look at how well those shows hold up decades later.
Director Tony Lea keeps the action moving in Deep Dish's relatively confined quarters (based on photos, earlier productions had a look more reminiscent of Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks"). Among the cast, Nicholson shines in the spotlight role of Franco, and Sennett does his best work as Arthur's anger finally emerges, but Jay O'Berski walks away with the show as the irate Russian business owner next door.
Superior Donuts proved surprisingly unsuccessful when it ran on Broadway from September 2009 to January 2010, after it premiered at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre; perhaps New York audiences anticipated Letts' usual bleakness. But many regional companies have picked up Superior Donuts, and the simplicity (and the lack of demand for non-spectacle musicals) that might have limited it on the Great White Way could be a reason this play is more appealing at the regional level. It's certainly an easier production than the sprawling, multicharacter dysfunction of August: Osage County, but there's something involving and affecting about Superior Donuts' tale of friendship and redemption, along with an unironic sincerity in its depiction of these characters and how it makes you care about them. Superior Donuts might not have the depth of Letts' other work, but it has the air of something that will enjoy a long second life among those who enjoy an old-fashioned tale.
And yes, they have Krispy Kremes for sale in the lobby. You'll want them come intermission.