A Crumblingly Nostalgic Emblem of Old America
Tracy Letts' Superior Donuts
Southwark Playhouse | London
directed by Ned Bennett
American dramatist Tracy Letts' searing, Pulitzer-winning play August: Osage County played the National Theatre in 2008 after making a hit on Broadway with its acerbic dissection of a hapless Oklahoma matriarchy. By comparison, his second play to be performed in London is fluffier fare, turning an intimate space into a crumblingly nostalgic doughnut shop; a sweet emblem of Old America. Through the cafe's smeared windows, a hazy picture of Uptown Chicago emerges. Police, alcoholics, gangsters, immigrant shop owners and optimistic young folks stop by for a greasy “dessert cake,” in a ponderous look at an aging hippie's redemption, tinted with the merest touch of rose – or pink icing,
After a break-in leaves a former 60s radical Arthur Przybyszewski's doughnut shop desecrated (fortunately the worst word the vandals know is “pussy”), Franco Wicks bounds in to demand a job from Arthur. He's a puppyish bundle of ideas, with plans to turn the cafe into a mini Whole Foods and beat poetry paradise. Meanwhile, Arthur is feeling grim about the business his Polish parents founded now that a new Starbucks has opened across the street. Franco's capacious backpack hides another bundle; dog-eared legal notebooks that comprise his attempt at the Great American Novel, which he's been writing for the last seven of his 21 years.
The events that follow might have been plucked from this optimistic teenage novelist's more fevered, bedroom-bound imaginings. The streets surrounding Superior Donuts may pay lip service to their Chicago setting, but they're really in a kind of 1970s cop movie fantasy land, where gangsters beat people up without the aid of knives, let alone guns. No one has mobile phones. Precious, vulnerably single manuscripts are carried about everywhere. Convenient Russian henchman live next door, and if you're good, they'll beat up your gangsters for you – and pass round the vodka afterwards.
There's plenty of real charm in the play's large, faintly surreal cast of characters. Amanda Walker plays the unworldly Lady Boyle with slippery charm, moving from dazed dipsomania to moments of real-world savvy. Alexander James Simon as Officer James Bailey is a 'Trekky' cop who mixes seemingly endless patience with frustration at Arthur's neighbours' thinly-veiled racism. Jonathan Livingstone's performance as Franco is fantastically energetic and just the right degree of infuriating. But it's hard to escape either the set or the almost static dynamic of Franco's attempts to reinspire the grieving, apathetic Mitchell Mullen’s Arthur into action. Things drag further thanks to the soliloquies that litter the text; Ned Bennett's direction underlines them in neon lighting, with a dozy detachment that finds all the pathos of the lost American dream but not much of its magic.
Although in some sense this is an old man's play, concerned with lost worlds and cultures, it's still shot through with bursts of life and local colour; its nine-strong cast make up an entirely realised place with an internal logic all of its own. But it's hard to escape the feeling that it's subtly adrift from the real-world grit it studies so closely; a sweet memory of life before Starbucks got its monopoly on sugar.
photo | ©Simon Annand