Superior Donuts, Southwark Playhouse

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Arthur Przybyszewski’s donut shop, a relic of an American dream past its sell-by date, is being taken away from him piece by piece. In this UK premiere of Tracy Letts’ 2008 play, Fly Davis’ deliberately dilapidated design is falling away at the edges, its grubby walls at once sturdily worn and precariously fragile. It’s the sort of place that radiates the permanence of having been around forever and yet might disappear tomorrow, stamped out by the unstoppable advance of Starbucks.

Such is the contemporary America of Superior Donuts. The context of Letts’ drama is rootedly specific, making frequent reference to its surroundings in Chicago and taking the donut shop of the title as a focal point for the lives of those who pass through it, but it equally speaks to a wider sense of modern malaise. Arthur, an ageing hippie nursing the failures of his idealistic youth amid the ruins of his family business, exhibits a paralysis that seems to typify contemporary apathy. There’s a stubbornness to his resistance to change, but also a weary resignation that can be read in every gesture of Mitchell Mullen’s performance. Here is a man who greets life with slumped shoulders.

Into these stale surroundings, where most of the donuts go to a pair of passing cops and an old wino who never pays a penny, enters the requisite young American dreamer. Jonathan Livingstone’s infectiously energetic Franco is a bundle of enthusiasm, ideas and audacious ambitions, both for the “great American novel” that he has penned in dog-eared exercise books and the donut shop that is falling apart around him. The set up, and subsequently much of the action, is typical clash of the generations, old-cynic-meets-young-optimist stuff, as the new employee grapples with his jaded boss in his attempts to ring in the change. Superior Donuts rehearses a familiar and distinctly American narrative, one littered with the wreckage of dreams but faintly illuminated by friendship and hope.

And yet, hard as it is to pin down, there’s something more to it than that. Letts’ play – and indeed Ned Bennett’s production – has a way of sneaking up on its audience. It is delicate, meandering and unapologetically slow, its rhythm capturing the ebb, flow and occasional eddies of everyday life in this fading staple of uptown Chicago. The pace is slowed even further by the occasionally frustrating interjection of Arthur’s introspective monologues about his past, which have more of a literary than a theatrical quality. Just as the itch comes to check your watch, however, you discover that the play has somehow grabbed you – ever so gently, mind – right by the scruff of the neck.

It is possibly down to the characters, who are deftly captured by Bennett and his cast. Mullen and Livingstone in the central pairing are particularly compelling, their relationship endearing without giving in too much to sentimentality, while Sarah Ball’s policewoman packs a world of yearning into a few snatched glances. Each of the individuals who passes through Arthur’s donut shop, however fleetingly, feels convincingly, compassionately sketched.

But perhaps it has more to do with the play’s relationship to hope, a relationship that is more complicated than it might appear at first glance. Bennett has described the piece as “hugely optimistic”, which it is in many ways, but neither the play nor this production are quite that straightforward. Just as Davis’ design has stripped whole panels from the walls, this is a world in retreat, being dismantled bit by bit in the wake of corporate expansion. It’s telling that even the great dreamer enthuses in marketing speak, discussing poetry readings in the same breath as brand identity. There is optimism to be found, not least in Letts’ determined use of the future tense, but even hope is shown to have its limits.

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