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Arts and Entertainment

'Superior Donuts' Offers Delicious, if Familiar, Treats

Edi Gathegi and Gary Cole in "Superior Donuts." Photo - Michael Lamont
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With his award-winning drama August: Osage County, playwright Tracy Letts was swinging for the bleachers, although only time will tell if he managed to knock it out of the park. It’s understandable that he’d try to create something lighter and funnier as a follow-up, and in Superior Donuts he has succeeded. Although this new play is somewhat familiar and slight, it’s also undeniably entertaining, and the current production at the Geffen Playhouse bolsters that with an expert cast and one lead performance that dazzles with charismatic humor.

Arthur (Gary Cole) owns and runs a donut shop in a declining neighborhood in Chicago. This doesn’t bother him, because he’s stopped caring much about life in general after a series of setbacks. Into this stasis barges young writer Franco (Edi Gathegi), who talks his way into a job at the shop. Franco’s relentlessly positive energy wakes Arthur up from his somnambulant life, to the extent that the older man tries to work up the courage to ask friendly lady cop Randy (Mary Beth Fisher) out on a date. Arthur in turn brings his maturity and experience to bear when he reads and praises Franco’s first unpublished novel. All is proceeding well until a problem from the past intrudes violently, and Arthur will either have to stand and fight or turn away once again into his solitude.

Cole anchors the play with seeming ease and does solid work as Arthur, but the role as written seems somehow incomplete and the character’s difficult past isn’t as moving as it was likely intended to be. Gathegi, on the other hand, is a joy to watch, a dynamo of comedy and charm. His performance is an assured and hilarious star turn, an unalloyed delight. Fisher is effective and low-key as the hopeful Randy, and Damon Gupton is gruffly amusing as her partner cop. Ron Bottitta (so good and so different in Rogue Machine’s recent The Sunset Limited) is blazingly funny as the well-meaning if pushy Russian businessman Max, and Paul Dillon brings subtlety and surprising moments of regret as loan shark Luther.

Director Randall Arney gets strong work from his cast and his pacing is mostly spot-on, excepting a long Act Two fight that overstays its welcome by a noticeable margin. Letts gives almost all of his characters unexpected aspects, which keeps things interesting, but his decision to have Arthur deliver his back story via solo monologues unfortunately doesn’t work very well. John Arnone’s realistic shop set, with elevated train tracks looming above it, is efficient and professionally wrought.

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Superior Donuts is playing through July 10. Tickets are $47-$77 and are available online or via phone at (310) 208-5454.