Tracy Letts walked the Eugene O’Neill family tragedy route with his epic “August: Osage County.” He crosses to the picaresque, William Saroyan side of the street with “Superior Donuts,” a much more modest undertaking boasting no less character truth in its strong thumbs up to people who remain engaged with life. Done to a turn in the Geffen Playhouse deep fryer, these “Donuts” are a tasty tonic for the times.
Like the San Francisco barroom of Saroyan’s 1939 “The Time of Your Life,” Letts’ titular Chicago shop houses contemporary society in microcosm, as whimsical flotsam and jetsam roll in with gentle commentary on the national character: a philosophical old rummy (Kathryn Joosten); an Irish mobster (Paul Dillon) whose threats have given him an ulcer; a bumptious Russian emigrant (Ron Bottitta) gleefully grasping the American Dream in his hairy paw.
And both plays center on men of mystery, jaded life dropouts reading fiction all day while refusing to notice the nonfiction beyond the front door. Brooding proprietor Arthur (Gary Cole) barely acknowledges his shop’s vandalization or his customers’ pain; a Vietnam era draft evader, now he just evades.
Cole is marvelous in this part, providing quick glimpses of the cauldron of anger still bubbling beneath a once-vital citizen’s retreat into pot haze. (Cole’s incisiveness even triumphs over Letts’ most dubious choice: Arthur’s overly explicit, backstory-revealing monologues. Neither character, thesp nor audience requires everything spelled out.)
“Donuts” essentially becomes a totally non-sexual love story between Arthur’s immovable object and the irresistible force of hyperactive Franco Wicks (Edi Gathegi), a dropout himself (from college) with heavy gambling debts and a heavier first novel he totes around in spiral notebooks. You know Arthur will ground and nurture Franco even as the latter cajoles the former back into the world, but that anticipation doesn’t take away from their encounters’ sparkling yin and yang.
And though you may doubt Franco’s willingness to work at minimum wage in his dire straits, you won’t regret his job choice as Gathegi joyously commands the stage, combining Chris Rock sass with Michael Jackson moves while conveying the budding novelist’s ever-present fear and grief.
Gathegi’s is a star-making turn, but all of Letts’ hangers-on are polished to a gemstone finish by Randall Arney’s exemplary cast. Arney of Chicago’s Steppenwolf (whence the play began) demonstrates effortless control over its tonal shifts, never letting things turn too syrupy or too grim.
And there’s a Windy City blessing over John Arnone’s stunning interior. Rising above the rotary phone, grimy counter and broken hearts, a row of tenements and an El train girder suggest the pressures against which Letts’ indomitables struggle.
There’s flash and dash and a fine brawl staged by Ned Mochel. But you may most carry away the simpler moments: a grin transforming to a sob; a sigh of regret; the off-center courtship of a tongue-tied Arthur and a bemused lady cop (Mary Beth Fisher, flawless), delicately exploring the limits of what you can reveal over a dunkin’ cinnamon and a cuppa joe.