Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death, The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies, We, the people, must redeem The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers. The mountains and the endless plain — All, all the stretch of these great green states —
And make America again!
— "Let America Be America Again,"
Superior Donuts is a cautiously optimistic play about growing up and starting over and the nearly invisible line that separates the American Dream from the American nightmare. The action takes place inside a 60-year-old family-run coffee shop in Uptown Chicago, but the characters' lives are shaped more profoundly by various foreign wars than they are by each other. They are also motivated by the considerable battle that always seems to be happening just off stage. Critics have almost universally described Terry Letts' dark comedy as a nutrition-free confection, compared to the playwright's breakthrough hit August: Osage County. But Donuts, a brutal, Langston Hughes-inspired analogue of Plato's cave myth, won't let itself be written off so easily.
Superior Donuts takes place in an American petri dish populated by Old World serfs who, as Hughes wrote, left "dark Ireland's shore," "Poland's plain," "England's grassy lea," and "Black Africa's strand" to build a "homeland of the free." But not free refills. Starbucks has just opened across the dangerous street, bringing with it the promise of a civilized future and the demise of Superior Donuts. The Russians have quite literally invaded, only they've done it by way of legal immigration.
In Circuit Playhouse's production, Jonathan Underwood brings his own natural charisma to the role of Franco, a gifted African-American writer and terrible gambler who takes a job at Superior Donuts hoping to pay off his debt to the mob. He's the character Hughes describes in his poem "Let America Be America Again" as a "Young man, full of strength and hope/Tangled in that ancient endless chain/Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!/Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!" Franco finds a friend in the coffee shop's owner, Arthur Przybyszewski, a tattered first-generation Polish-American barely hanging on to his parents' donut legacy. Veteran performer James Dale Green turns in his best performance in years as Przybyszewski, a laconic, joint-smoking introvert who evaded the draft during Vietnam and seems infinitely more preoccupied by America's military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan than he is with the turf wars going on in his own backyard.
The Chicago of Superior Donuts is a paranoid place where the cops mean well but can't seem to do much, where it's hard to tell the honest businessmen from hardcore thugs and even harder to distinguish between hospitality and payola.
Chris Hart isn't a particularly large actor, but he's an imposing, chaotic presence as Max, a Russian-American shopkeeper who wants to acquire the Superior Donuts property and open a store selling plasma screen TVs and Ukrainian porn. His dialogue may be a hilarious tangle of mixed malapropisms, but Max, an admittedly greedy, delusional, and dangerous man, knows what he wants, and his meaning is always completely clear. He helps himself when he helps Przybyszewski take on an ulcer-ridden Irish gangster (Michael Mullins) who, quite literally, lacks the stomach to do his own dirty work.
Letts has described Superior Donuts as a love letter to Chicago. That may seem odd considering the play's nearly apocalyptic tone. But the Uptown streets so vividly described in this harsh, funny, and ultimately humane play aren't some gang-infested killing ground. They are the literal manifestation of the boiling pot where America is constantly dying and being reborn.
Superior Donuts is a meandering affair, but director Pamela Poletti has kept things on track even when the script threatens to spiral out of control. This is a show that should be gobbled up as a tasty appetizer to August: Osage County, which opens at Playhouse on the Square in March.
Through September 19th