By Tracy Letts. Directed by Keltie Forsyth. An Ensemble Theatre Company production. At the Jericho Arts Centre on Monday, July 22. Continues until August 16
Arthur Przybyszewski (David Nykl) is the sad-sack owner of Superior Donuts. The son of Polish immigrants, he’s aged out of his ’60s-era radicalism and into something much more emotionally stunted and defeatist. He’s missing work, forgetting to do basic things like ordering coffee and supplies, and he barely reacts when his shop is broken into and vandalized. But everything changes when Franco Wicks (Chris Francisque), a young African-American man, answers Arthur’s “Help wanted” sign. Franco is 21 years old, hilarious and opinionated, lively and hopeful. As the two men slowly bond, they tackle everything from racism to relationships, but both are burdened by legacies their fathers left behind. Superior Donuts could also be called Toxic Masculinity Is Destroying Men and Ruining the World, but I get why playwright Tracy Letts went with the shorter, if less satisfying, title.
Letts never outright says that Arthur is grappling with depression, but through the character’s monologues we hear about growing up in Chicago in his family’s doughnut shop, his years as a draft dodger in Canada, and how his marriage dissolved after his daughter was born. “I didn’t talk. I didn’t listen. I didn’t care,” he says. “It was nothing insurmountable.” It’s a funny line, in part because it’s so real. But Arthur's self-awareness is limited. He follows that declaration with “You have a kid, and a kiss becomes a handshake, and pretty soon you no longer cast a shadow in your own house.” This is the kind of line one wishes he’d said in dialogue with Franco rather than in monologue, because Franco would have called him out on his self-pity.
Arthur's inability to talk about his feelings or share his life has left him painfully isolated, and painfully self-involved. Franco pushes the shopkeeper to open up, daring him to dream beyond the confines of his meagre existence, urging him into some kind of community. The push-and-pull of their burgeoning friendship is a beautifully executed series of trust-falls until Arthur gets scared and lashes out. “What could be more human than to be scared and keep it a secret?” he asks rhetorically in one of his monologues.
Letts is, obviously, a gifted writer. He has a Pulitzer Prize for his 2007 play August: Osage County. There are some wonderful lines throughout Superior Donuts, but Letts doesn’t push or interrogate his characters’ motivations as deeply as he could, and the play’s violent but tidy resolution is deeply dissatisfying. Thankfully, this production has two lead actors who turn in brilliant performances. Nykl and Francisque flawlessly elevate the material, drawing out every laugh and every nuance of their characters’ emotionally complex pas de deux. They almost make Superior Donuts live up to its name.