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Rousuck's Review: "Superior Donuts" At Frederick's Maryland Ensemble Theatre

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Joe Williams
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You wouldn’t expect it from the title, but there’s a lot of violence in the play, Superior Donuts. The opening scene takes place the morning after this Chicago donut shop has been vandalized. And there’s a fight in the second act that almost has you ducking for cover. 

Playwright Tracy Letts started writing Superior Donuts right before his 2008 Pulitzer Prize winner, August: Osage County, had its first production.

He set out to write something very different from that sprawling Oklahoma family saga. And he did. In many respects, Superior Donuts is the superior play.

Skillfully constructed and more tightly written, Superior Donuts strikes a credible balance between comedy and despair, brutality and hope. Its damaged, disparate main characters grow and learn from each other. And, it incorporates broad, timely themes ranging from racial understanding to corporate America’s threat to small business.

Director Gene Fouche’s production at the Maryland Ensemble Theatre in Frederick keeps you as keyed up as a strong cup of donut shop coffee.

The play focuses on two characters. Arthur Przbyszewski (pron. shoe-beh-CHEFS-key) is an aging hippie, son of Polish immigrants who opened the donut shop in 1950, the year Arthur was born.

Franco Wicks is a 21-year-old African-American who comes in looking for a job. He challenges Arthur from the start.

As played by Tad Janes, and Najee Banks, Arthur and Franco journey from opposition to understanding. Janes – sporting a bushy gray beard, ponytail, tie-dyed T-shirt and gruff exterior -- looks and acts the part of a still-disaffected draft dodger, a laconic loner.

His co-star, newcomer Najee Banks is a revelation. Banks imbues Franco with so much enthusiasm, he frequently breaks into song or dance or sends his voice into a near-falsetto register. His character is brimming with ideas. He’s written a novel, and he knows his stuff when it comes to literature – much more so, he’s convinced, than his new boss.

But Franco doesn’t just have a serious side, he’s also in serious trouble – trouble that tracks him down at the end of the first act.

The involving plot comes complete with an O. Henry twist. But the connection that develops between Arthur and Franco is what makes you care about these seemingly opposite characters: The taciturn, introverted old guy and the talkative, outgoing young man.

The play is peopled with other colorful Chicago types -- from beat cops to the Russian owner of the shop next door. Though a few of the lesser performances aren’t as strong, Laura Stark delivers a moving portrayal of a cop with a crush on Arthur, and Julie Herber stands out in the small role of a neighborhood bag lady.

In designing the set and props, Ira Domser and Bailey Sterling paid so much attention to the details of this rundown donut shop, you’re tempted to sit at the counter and order a cruller. Fight choreographer Mike Martin also earns praise.

“Friends,” Franco tells Arthur, “share their stories.” In Superior Donuts, playwright Tracy Letts spins some satisfying stories, and they’re well told at Maryland Ensemble Theatre.

Superior Donuts continues at the Maryland Ensemble Theatre in Frederick through June 19

J. Wynn Rousuck has been reviewing theater for WYPR's Midday (and previously, Maryland Morning) since 2007. Prior to that, she was the theater critic of The Baltimore Sun, where she reviewed more than 3,000 plays over the course of 23 years. Her feature coverage for The Sun included a comprehensive series chronicling the development of the Tony Award-winning musical, “Hairspray.” Judy got her start at The Cleveland Press and at Cleveland’s fine arts radio station, WCLV. Her broadcasting experience also includes a year as an on-air theater critic for Maryland Public Television.