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Friday, March 25, 2011

Last chance for Horizon Theatre's tasty 'Donuts'

TIME TO MAKE THE DONUTS: Eric J. Little and Chris Kayser
  • Courtes of Horizon Theatre
  • TIME TO MAKE THE DONUTS: Eric J. Little and Chris Kayser
“Dinner theater” is a hopelessly derided concept, but “snack theater” may be an idea whose time has come. Horizon Theatre’s Superior Donuts takes place at the eponymous Chicago doughnut-and-coffee shop, so the audience spends two hours listening to rhapsodic, mouth-watering talk of the fatty, sugary pastries for two hours. Horizon Theatre has teamed with Midtown’s Sublime Doughnuts to sell refreshments at intermission, so the audience lines up with ravenous appetites and gets to engage its taste buds along with its eyes and ears.

As opposed to the kind of dougtnuts with a hole, the Horizon production, directed by Jeff Adler, has a bit of filling inside, although it's more sweet than nutritious. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts takes a vacation from his hit psychosexual dramas like Killer Joe and Bug to present a formulaic but satisfying comedy redolent with Chicago's local color.

Multiple reviewers have compared Superior Donuts to 1970s TV sitcoms, particularly "Chico and the Man" with Freddie Prinze and Jack Albertson sitcom. In this case, the older "Man" set in his ways is morose aging hippie Arthur Przybyszweski (Chris Kayser), who half-heartedly runs the shop his late father founded in 1950. Arthur inadvertently jolts himself out of his middle-aged funk when he hires Franco (Eric J. Little), an enterprising young African-American man, as minimum-wage help. With practically his first breath, Franco weighs in on how "Mr. P." can improve his business and his life, from offering “heart-healthy” alternatives and holding poetry readings to cleaning up his act to attract a lady cop (Lala Cochran). “The ponytail has got to go," Franco opines. "You know who looks good in a ponytail? Girls, and ponies.”

Kayser and Little make a great comedy team, with Little delivering the patter of a born salesman, with just enough youthful naivete to make Franco sympathetic. Kayser conveys that Arthur's more on the ball than he initially seems, and relishes Arthur's short monologues about his personal history. When Arthur talks about being the first generation son of Polish immigrants, and becoming a draft-evader who spent most of the 1970s in Canada, he seems to savor even the unhappy memories, as if the character lives more in the past than the present. Arthur's 1960s idealism has given way to cynicism and fear, and his escalating conflicts with Franco's optimism carry the faintest echoes of Eugene O'Neil's deconstruction of "pipe dreams" in The Iceman Cometh. At one point Franco argues in favor of his ambitions, "They ain't fantasies, goddammit, they're possibilities!"

Letts was born in Tulsa, Okla., but has been a Chicagoan his adult life, and uses Superior Donuts as a love letter to the ethnic enclaves of his adopted home. The Windy City comes across as a place where immigrants retain their old-country pride, like Max (Bart Hansard), Arthur's Falstaffian Russian neighbor who provides plenty of humor, but more than just comic relief. His voracious ambition to expand his electronics store by buying out Superior Donuts reveals the barbed edge of the American Dream.

Letts' sense of place and central characters prove so strong that it's a shame that Superior Donuts relies on such contrivances. A whimsical bag lady (Anita Hardy) more suited for a Lily Tomlin play provides sage advice at a key moment. Franco isn't just a bright go-getter, but he's a prodigious artist and in debt to a sinister bookie (Bryan Brendle), encumbering the action with too much melodrama. At least Brendle makes the mobbed-up character feel fresh by emphasizing the bookie's stress-related ulcer symptoms and personal unhappiness at putting the squeeze on Franco.

Letts being Letts, the playwright builds to an elaborate sequence of stage violence (with fight choreography by Scot L. Mann), but the kind that makes you want to cheer rather than cower in your seat. Coincidentally, when Superior Donuts finishes its run, Kayser and Hansard will cross town to join an all-Atlanta cast in another Letts play, the acerbic 2008 Pulitzer-winner August: Osage County at the Alliance Theatre. Horizon's Donuts can be considered the appetizer to Letts' main course, but remains too warm and well-executed to be dismissed as a trifle.

Superior Donuts. Through March 27. Hortizon Theatre, 1083 Austin Ave. Wed-Fri., 8 p.m., Sat., 8:30 p.m., Sun., 5 p.m. 404.584.7450. /www.horizontheatre.com

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