'Superior Donuts' at Studio Theatre: The performances are the treat

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 17, 2010; 6:51 PM

Wearing a half-awake gaze, a greasy ponytail and a stained T-shirt, the actor Richard Cotovsky so totally becomes the counterculture burnout case of Studio Theatre's "Superior Donuts" that you can practically smell the ashes from old hash pipes on him. He's Arthur Przybyszewski (the P is silent), proprietor of the titular establishment and authoritative relic of a bygone era in Tracy Letts's hit-and-miss Chicago comedy.

Arthur's shabby store, a family legacy, hasn't held up particularly well, either, and it is the question of whether Arthur can liberate himself from this spiral of decline that animates the play, which is presented in reasonable shape by director Serge Seiden.

Letts, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning domestic free-for-all "August: Osage County," follows up with a piece modeled on all those character-driven plays in bars and diners by American masters from Eugene O'Neill to Tennessee Williams to August Wilson. But the age of this classic format shows, particularly as the story unfolds and Letts piles on device after device: Arthur's interludes of self-narration, transparent uses of menace and violence, and even an element of plot straight out of "Hedda Gabler."

The most successful concoction is Arthur himself. He arrives one morning at the coffee shop - conjured in all its delightfully mundane dinginess by set designer Russell Metheny - to discover the cops (Julie-Ann Elliott and Jason McIntosh) and a neighboring store owner (Gregor Paslawsky) looking over the aftermath of an act of vandalism. They're more upset about it than is the inscrutable, grizzled Arthur, who, we learn, is still licking the psychic wounds of the '60s and seems for other reasons to be hibernating in a haze of disappointment.

Cue the life force! In walks young Franco Wicks (Johnny Ramey), a dynamo from the neighborhood who, desperate for a job, refuses to take no for an answer (A whiff of the old "Chico and the Man" sitcom wafts in). It turns out that Franco is both on the run from his thuggish bookie and in search of a decent agent: In his down time, he's written a novel, possibly the great American one, on notebooks and legal pads that are held together by a bungee cord.

The budding relationship between Arthur and Franco is "Superior Donuts' " bungee cord. Ramey's exuberant performance proves an entertaining counterpoint to Cotovsky's stoicism. By degree, Cotovsky allows you to see what still throbs in Arthur's soul, that he yearns for a second chance. If only the playwright hadn't felt it necessary to spell everything out, in intrusive disgorgings of Arthur's memories.

The evening's rampant unevenness is exacerbated by some overly broad characters such as Paslawsky's Max, a thickly accented Russian landlord prone to emotional displays and racist remarks.

Elliott's sympathetic portrayal of a policewoman with more than a public servant's interest in Arthur is a tonic, however, and Ramey adds the necessary dash of charisma to a character whose life sometimes comes across as too conveniently overstocked with drama. And somehow, Cotovsky manages to solidly embody Arthur's distracted essence, ensuring that "Superior Donuts" does not play out with a hole in its center.

Superior Donuts by Tracy Letts. Directed by Serge Seiden. Set, Russell Metheny; lighting, Peter West; costumes, Kate Turner-Walker; sound, Gil Thompson; fight choreography, Robb Hunter. With Barbara Broughton, Chris Genebach, Logan Bennett, Aaron Tone. About 2½ hours. Through Dec. 19 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Call 202-332-3300 or visit www.studiotheatre.org.

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