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January 15, 2013

Fells Point Corner Theatre stages Tracy Letts' 'Superior Donuts'

Thanks to a little serendipity, the extraordinary American playwright Tracy Letts is getting a double dose of attention in Baltimore.

On the boards at the new Everyman Theatre is his magnum opus, “August: Osage County,” which won the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for Best Play in 2008. That year also saw the premiere of his next stage work, “Superior Donuts,” which is getting a workout from Fells Point Corner Theatre.

With its Eugene O’Neill-worthy length and pileup of issues tearing at an Oklahoma family, “August” stands as one of the most inspired, arresting new plays in years. “Donuts,” a mix of comedy and drama set in a gritty Chicago neighborhood, is obviously not the superior work.

Still, there’s considerable craftsmanship here. Letts peoples his play with distinctive characters who reveal enough surprising traits and emotions to keep things interesting.

You could say this is a kinder, gentler sort of “American Buffalo.” There’s a run-down doughnut shop instead of the junk shop in the David Mamet classic, and a similarly hapless owner who comes to rely on a young neighborhood guy with his own problems. Dreams of a better life, and intrusions of reality and violence, figure in both pieces.

But Letts allows sunshine to penetrate the grimy blinds on the front door. At heart, his work is about ...

getting out of ruts, learning to trust, trying to believe.

Although it did not enjoy a hearty run on Broadway, the piece has understandably attracted the attention of regional and community theaters around the country. It’s a good fit for Fells Point Corner Theatre.

Richard Dean Stover’s direction is mostly steady (greater momentum would be especially welcome in Act 2), and the action plays out on a nicely atmospheric set designed by Jennifer Raddatz.

As Arthur Przybyszewski, a pushing-60 former draft dodger who halfheartedly carries on his parents’ doughnut business, Phil Gallagher effectively conveys the character’s social awkwardness, frustrations and cynicism (Arthur defines the essence of Polish character as “hopelessness — wakes are proof”).

The actor also manages to put a convincing spin on the play’s somewhat creaky device of break-the-fourth-wall addresses to the audience.

Christopher Jones does a winning job as Franco Wicks, the college dropout who has been writing — what else? — the next “great American novel” and, meanwhile, has decided he is just the person to turn Arthur’s shop around. He’s ready to turn the scruffy Arthur around as well, noting that the only ones “who look good in pony tails are girls and ponies.”

Of course, Franco has a problem, and, of course, that will eventually dominate the play. Jones handles the shift in emphasis and tone as persuasively as he does the initial mix of bravado and charm.

The interracial and intergenerational relationship between Arthur and the Franco gives “Superior Donuts” much of its emotional weight, and Letts largely avoids cliche in examining the way the two men gradually bond.

The playwright also adds some fresh touches to the others who pop in and out of the shop, even when they do so in sitcom-worthy fashion.

William Walker reveals nuance as Officer Bailey, the cop with a Trekkie fetish. Lynda McClary likewise does a smooth job as Officer Osteen, who is just lonely enough to see potential in Arthur.

There are colorful contributions from Natalia Chavez Leimkuhler as the savvy bag lady; Jeff Murray, as the Russian super-entrepreneur on the block; and Robert Scott Hitcho, as a loan shark.

Really good doughnuts are awfully hard to find these days, but a play about them can be filling enough.

The production runs through Feb. 10.

PHOTOS BY KEN STANEK
Posted by Tim Smith at 7:17 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens
        

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at baltimoresun.com/artsmash. This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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