Thursday, January 20, 2011

Theater review: "Superior Donuts" is not a sitcom snack

Bill Geisslinger and Vin Shambry/Photo: Owen Carey
By Barry Johnson

Artists Repertory Theatre has extended its run of Tracy Letts's Superior Donuts through February 12, four more performances, which isn't surprising. A good comedy in January in Portland is hard to pass up.  Portland Center Stage is running Constance Congdon's raucous version of Moliere's The Imaginary Invalid now, too, more proof of Montesquieu's contention that climate is destiny and that we ignore it at our peril.

Although I've already characterized Superior Donuts as "a good comedy," I want to argue against the prevalent descriptions of the play by the nation's critics. Just about all of them, from Chicago and New York to D.C. and the Bay Area, mentioned sitcoms when describing the comedy.  They didn't use "sitcom" as a pejorative, either, as it once was when we described stage comedies. Not at all. Because except for a few dissenters (The Village Voice, for example, the New Yorker), the critical reception to the play has been kind.

The reviewers didn't just leave it at "sitcom," either. Some of them mentioned Norman Lear's '70s sitcoms (All in the Family, Maude) specifically. A couple brought up Chico and the Man. And from those hints, you might be able to figure out a lot about Superior Donuts. It has a "social" edge to it; it makes fun of a certain sort of racial stereotyping; a clash of generations is involved. And something else: It's all going to be all right in the end. Because "sitcom" still means "comfortable" and "familiar" along with "funny."

But this is the American theater, not the television screen, and so there's one major difference between Superior Donuts and Seinfeld. One or more of the characters is going to change. Jerry is NEVER going to find a nice girl to settle down with in Seinfeld; Kramer's impulses will undo his schemes every time; Elaine's dating misadventures will mirror Jerry's. Whether we are in season one or the last season of the show, the characters remain the same.  But in theater, we expect a change; and in a comedy we expect the character(s) to grow in some way and that their growth will be instrumental to the happy ending that awaits the attentive viewer.

So the Man in Chico and the Man (Jack Albertson) must remain somewhat curmudgeonly in the face of the charm of Chico (Freddy Prinze). He can't become entirely enlightened no matter what "lessons" Chico teaches him about the humanity that Latinos share with him, because then the premise of the show collapses. In Superior Donuts, though, the collision of Arthur, who inherited the little donut shop in a mixed Chicago neighborhood from his Polish immigrant parents, and his new employee, Franco, a young African-American kid on the lam from his bookie, is transforming, comic but transforming.

Let's take one more step. By describing Superior Donuts in the terms of the sit-com, past and present, I think reviewers miss out on its intentions and its participation in the long series of films, television shows, novels and plays that deal in some way with American racial rapprochement, mostly by giving white America some insight into the African-American view of life and sometimes by suggesting on what basis white and African-Americans can meet together productively.

Strangely, the vehicle for this insight into race, isn't Arthur, who fled to Canada to avoid the draft during the Vietnam War and still sports that era's weakness for ponytails and rock'n'roll T-shirts.  Arthur isn't Archie Bunker. As he himself says, he isn't a racist, he's a reader. In fact, when Franco challenges him to name 10 African-American poets, after some time for comic build-up elapses, he rattles them right off. (I think he left out one of my favorites, though -- Michael Harper.)

The only character who still speaks the language of American racism in Superior Donuts is... a Russian immigrant. When we look for "safe" villains these days, we turn to Russians and Arabs, right? But even the Russian character comes around, and it turns out his language masks a more humane way of looking at the world.

So, back at the plot, Franco comes to Arthur's shop looking for a job. He's bright, funny, alive. Which is good because the Arthur we meet is dull, dull and dull. And Superior Donuts tracks how 1) Franco awakens Arthur from the land of the comatose, and 2) how Arthur repays him. In some ways, race is incidental to the plot. EXCEPT that the audience automatically freights their encounter with American racial history and stereotypes. Letts subverts these stereotypes by naming them and then creating characters who don't enact them at all.

Linda Alper, Vin Shambry, Bill Geisslinger/ Photo by Owen Carey
The most important thing about Franco is his collection of notebooks. They contain his "Great American Novel." (Do people still talk about the Great American Novel? Maybe in Chicago, where Letts works with Steppenwolf Theatre,  because of Saul Bellow? This threw me a little.) We don't learn a lot about that novel, except that Arthur thinks it's really good, but we do know its title: "America Will Be!" That's a line from Langston Hughes' "Let America Be America Again" (remember the quiz), which ART thoughtfully includes in the program.  Here's the last stanza:
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!
This is the language of reconciliation, and it's the language that Letts is speaking in Superior Donuts, much more than the language of even our most socially engaged sitcoms. Something is at stake here -- and it's not just laughs that will attract an audience that will buy products. The intensity of the final scene involves the "redeem" in Hughes's poem and the business of making America again, with or without donuts.  Substitute "sitcom" for "donuts" and interesting things happen to the title, too.

ART's production itself, directed by Allen Nause, led me to this point of view about the play. Sure, it has some sitcom-like features, especially Michael Mendelson's broadly played Russian-next-door, Vana O'Brien's alcoholic street person and maybe Linda Alper's love-lorn cop (who has an inexplicable crush on Arthur). These are pretty typical "interesting characters," who are part of the donut shop's community, though wiser and more resourceful than the average oddball supporting actor role tends to be.  But the production emphasizes both Arthur and Franco's complexity, at the risk perhaps of losing the comic thread, though it really only makes them funnier.

Bill Geisslinger as Arthur is a perfect casting choice. He's a "quiet" actor, contained, capable of intensity, but also smaller emotions that come from his character's insecurities, principles and family history. And so he gives both the "interesting characters" and his co-star, Vin Shambry as Franco, room to express themselves, without having to worry too much about him. I've watched Geisslinger for many years on stage, mostly at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and when I see that he's involved in a project, I know that I'm going to be in good hands.

Shambry is a gifted actor -- he moves well, he sounds great, he understands contemporary gestural and vocal idioms perfectly. And he and Geisslinger, together in so many scenes, play off of each other really well, which is a credit to Nause, I suppose, too. Speaking of sit-coms (I think that's where we came in), he reminded me at first of young Will "Fresh Prince" Smith, maybe because of his vocal rhythms, but also the timbre of his voice and physical energy. That was a fleeting impression, though, forgotten as the play moved forward, and it's not a slight at all because that version of Will Smith had a certain genius about him as an actor.

Superior Donuts has villains.  They are somewhat problematic, but then I'm not sure how you do villains after Pulp Fiction. They (Pierre Brulatour, Paul Glazier) get some laughs, do terrible things offstage and are insufficiently punished.  

It also has cops. Alper, I've mentioned, another OSF regular, whom I've loved seeing over the years in Ashland. Let's get that actor a larger role! Ditto for Victor Mack, who plays Alper's partner on the police force with gravity and moral conviction. I'd love to hear him read Hughes's poem.

Both Mendelson and O'Brien are Portland veterans, who've played just about everything over the years, and they make the most of their comic turns, broad enough to generate humor and energy, reflective enough to make the characters round enough to fit with Geisslinger, which is actually a tough little trick to pull off. And the very large (in this company at least) Matthew D. Pavik starts out as a sight joke, and then actually becomes the sweetest character on the stage.

A few last thoughts

Right before I saw Superior Donuts, I finished Philip Roth's short novel, The Humbling, and that may be why I've spent so much time thinking about the actors in ART's production, thinking about them with affection. The main character in Roth's novella is an actor who is in his 60s and suddenly found himself unable to continue acting. He thinks about suicide, enters a mental hospital, breaks up with his wife, refuses job offers (Tyrone in Long Day's Journey Into Night), consoles himself in a doomed relationship.  One of my favorite parts is his list of characters who commit suicide (Shakespeare if full of them, for example, not to mention the Greeks, but also modern theater from Ibsen to the present.)

I'm not sure this character has anything, really, to do with real actors, any more than he does with the rest of us. The actor has lost what Roth calls his "instinct" for the stage and now everything is in his head, where his own disbelief of what he's doing paralyzes him. "Now he was thinking about everything, and everything spontaneous and vital was killed -- he tried to control it with thinking and instead he destroyed it." Which I suspect is a problem that Roth himself has as a writer, that all of us have from time to time. It's just more acute, um, dramatically speaking, for an actor to have the problem, because it's exposed to the audience and it involves a particular, concentrated performance.

I think The Humbling does have one important insight into acting -- that speaking onstage needs to come from listening: "The initial source in his acting was in what he heard, his response to what he heard was at the core of it, and if he couldn't listen, couldn't hear, he had nothing to go on." Again, we all have that problem, though to me, it seems almost cultural -- we willfully refuse to acknowledge the  social aspect inherent in our most personal expressions, thoughts, understanding.

Theater gets us out of our own head for a moment and into the social sphere, individuals in an audience, thinking about the problems of other people, not obsessing on our own. That's the lesson of Superior Donuts: when we reach out, we become more ourselves. Funny.


Marty Hughley reviews Superior Donuts in The Oregonian. He uses the sitcom comparison, and his review is sensitive to other aspects of the play.

Alison Hallett's review in the Portland Mercury. This one is a quick dismissal.

Reviews from the San Francisco Chronicle and the New York Times: Isherwood at the Times is especially impressed.

Bob Hicks reviewed the play on Art Scatter just today. He sees Superior Donuts as an actor's play, noting that Letts is an actor, and speculates about what that means to an evaluation of the play as a whole.


Bob said...

Excellent stuff, Barry. And the fun thing about it is, each of us wrote about nine miles on the thing, and barely touched on any of the same territory. Must be a good play!

Barry Johnson said...

Thanks, brother Bob. Geisslinger really gets the possibilities of his character,as you observe, and I'm looking forward to seeing him in OSF's version of "August: Osage County."