Theater review: ‘Superior Donuts’ at Mad Cow Theatre

Here’s my review of Superior Donuts, which will run later this week in the Orlando Sentinel:

By Elizabeth Maupin
Special to the Sentinel

With playwright Tracy Letts, you never know what to expect.

If you know Letts from his lowbrow, foul-mouthed little comedy Killer Joe, you were probably astounded at the prosperous folks in his long and sprawling (but still foul-mouthed) comedy August: Osage County.

And if you know Killer Joe and August: Osage County, you’ll be surprised again by Superior Donuts, the sweet-tempered (but still foul-mouthed) comic drama at Mad Cow Theatre. Letts has gone old-fashioned with Superior Donuts, a play with a decidedly narrower scope than August’s epic family drama. It takes the life-size performances of Mad Cow’s cast – which is to say performances that are extravagant, hilarious and resoundingly true – to remind you that this is a playwright for whom possibilities are endless.

You’d never know it to look at designer Cindy White’s setting, the most prosaic of sad-sack donut shops – all linoleum, Formica and red-and-white checked vinyl, as dated in its way as a set for Tennessee Williams or William Inge.

That’s the point, of course: Shop owner Arthur Przybyszewski lives in the past – and especially in his mistakes, from the cowardice he felt when he fled a 1960s draft notice for the safety of Canada to the disengagement he showed the wife and young daughter who left him years before.

He’s disengaged, that is, until he’s waylaid by a rambunctious young black man named Franco Wicks, who cajoles Arthur into a job, persuades Arthur to read a manuscript he calls the great American novel and wins Arthur’s trust – a move that gets them both into a kind of trouble that transports them from heart-warming to horrifying in an instant.

It’s Letts’s penchant for colossal characters that lifts Superior Donuts from a kind of mundane niceness. Look at Max, the Russian owner of the neighboring video store, whose fractured English is studded with malapropisms but whose swearing is entirely accurate. Look at the quirks of the minor characters – the gangster with an ulcer, the cop obsessed with Star Trek.

Thanks to some inspired casting, director Rob Anderson’s production lets these characters sing. Joe Wyatt’s Max may be slight, but he’s such a pistol that he seems about to burst out of his skin; Stephan Jones’s Luther, the gangster, has the aggrieved air of someone who’s perpetually misunderstood.

Most of all, Michael Sapp’s smiley Franco is a force of nature – so full of himself that you think he has to be a con man, so exuberant that he fills the room. It’s an astounding performance from a very young actor, but Anderson doesn’t let him clobber the other characters: Every move seems right.

Something close to the opposite is true for Sam Hazell’s Arthur. Letts has written him as a depressive, and it doesn’t help that his monologues seem to come from nowhere: Anderson doesn’t signal who Arthur is talking to (his absent daughter? the audience?) and the result comes off as sappy. Hazell is a terrific actor, but he seems ill at ease here; I’m not sure anyone could play a central character this withdrawn.

That’s a shame, because Superior Donuts has a lot going for it – some engaging bit players, some heartfelt sentiment and most of all those larger-than-life characters who make this donut shop spin. Larger-than-life is life, it seems; you just have to look for Tracy Letts’s signature on the page.

Theater review
‘Superior Donuts’
What: Mad Cow Theatre production of Tracy Letts comic drama
Where: Mad Cow Theatre, 105 S. Magnolia Ave., Orlando
When: 7:30 Thursdays-Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, through April 18 (also, 7:30 p.m. March 29 and April 12)
Cost: $24 and $26 general, $22 and $24 seniors and students, $15 Mondays
Call: 407-297-8788 Ext. 1

Photo: Michael Sapp and Sam Hazell. Photo by Tom Hurst/Mad Cow Theatre.

2 responses to “Theater review: ‘Superior Donuts’ at Mad Cow Theatre

  1. I was impressed with Mr. Sapp when he took part in my reading last year and I knew he would continue to amaze from the stage. We’ll be hearing a lot from him.

  2. John Perkins

    I’ve always liked Tracy Letts work, Superior Donuts did not let me down. I’ve always found that Tracy puts lots of thought in to the supporting cast, my favorite by far was the Irish foul foul-mouthed thug Joe Coffey, he played the part well!!!