Arthur Przybyszewski (Robert Foxworth) is only 59, but seems to carry the weight of the world as he shuffles through his days in Superior Donuts, the Uptown Chicago shop his family has owned for 60 years.
Arthur still wears the ponytail and the unfashionable clothes of the unreconstructed hippie he is. As he tells us, evasion has been his lifestyle since he fled to Toronto to escape the draft all those years ago (and was called “coward” by his father).
This day Arthur arrives to find the results of vandalism: chairs and tables upended and an obscenity scrawled on one wall. This is not a unique occurrence; it’s just another in a string of annoyances he’s learned to deal with.
Persistent knocking disturbs him while he sits behind his locked door, contemplating the most recent offense. When he finally opens, he’s nearly blinded by the thousand-watt smile of the relentlessly upbeat Franco Wicks (Anthony B. Phillips), a young African-American in search of a job.
The relationship between these two disparate personalities is at the heart of “Superior Donuts,” the latest play from the pen of Tracy Letts, which gets a superb production at San Diego Repertory Theatre through March 6, directed by Sam Woodhouse.
It’s a lovely pas de deux: the young whippersnapper trying to bring order and new possibilities to the shop and its owner while his own life is in danger of disintegration; Franco learning to his surprise that this old white guy knows a thing or two himself, even about African-American poets.
Along for the ride are a pair of cops – Randy (DeAnna Driscoll, who seems to be flirting with Arthur) and James (Keith Jefferson) who regularly patrol the beat, argue good-naturedly and stop in for a donut and a cuppa; Lady (Kathryn Herbruck), a homeless alcoholic freeloader, and Max (Dimiter D. Marinov), who wants to buy the shop in order to expand his next-door DVD business.
Conflict – and a heck of a fight scene – are brought by Stephen Morgan-MacKay and Tyler Herdklotz as enforcers who want the money the kid owes, and now.
Foxworth, the imperious but foolish King Lear of last year’s Old Globe Shakespeare Festival, is terrific as the shambling Polish-American stuck in the past, who has all but given up on himself. Will Franco be able to teach him how to go on?
Phillips, a welcome newcomer to the local scene, easily goes toe-to-toe with the old veteran in a finely etched performance as Franco.
Driscoll, who always does as much with her face and body as with her lines, does not disappoint, and Jefferson provides amusing and convincing counterpoint as her partner.
Herbruck, Morgan-MacKay and Herdklotz round out the fine cast.
Kudos also to Robin Sanford Roberts and Kate Stallons for fine work with the ramshackle set and costumes.
“Superior Donuts” isn’t top-drawer Letts (I’ll take “Killer Joe” in that department, though “August: Osage County” is no slouch, and in fact won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize), but these characters are intriguing enough, and when Letts allows them to be funny, it’s a pleasant evening.
“Superior Donuts” plays through March 6 at San Diego Repertory Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza.
Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m.; matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m.
For tickets, call (619) 544-1000 or visit HERE.
To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.