From the moment actor Randolph Mantooth steps on stage in the Purple Rose’s superlative production of Superior Donuts, he takes total control of both the stage and the material of this extraordinary play by Tracy Letts (who won the Pulitzer Prize for August: Osage County). Mantooth plays Arthur Przybyszewski, a man of the sixties, who spent the Vietnam War years in Canada, eventually coming back to Chicago to take over his parents’ donut shop.
Sporting a gray ponytail and clothes he seems to have been wearing since the last Grateful Dead concert, Arthur occasionally lights up a cigarette or a joint, and greets everything that happens to him in his forgotten Polish backwater of Chicago with a raised eyebrow and gentle wisecrack. And a lot does happen: a break-in, a flirtation, a brash and cheeky new employee named Franco (Brian Marable) who wants to be a writer.
Franco engages Arthur, and they begin to match wits–one revelatory scene that culminates in a list of poets drew first a breathless silence then a spontaneous burst of applause from the audience, so beautifully does it crack open the characters to reveal their inner layers. As the play progresses, Franco drags in some baggage from his past, which eventually gives Arthur an opportunity to fight a war of his own choosing.
Mantooth keeps Arthur neatly balanced on a razor’s edge between calm Zen acceptance and passive resignation; it’s thrilling to watch him, just to see which way he is going to tip. That rare, magic fusion of good writing, acting, and directing elevates Arthur into more than an aging hippie. He becomes a meta-character, an emblem of an entire generation of draft resisters who couldn’t face the heartbreaking possibility that while they might have been doing the right thing, they might have also been cowards. Arthur spends most of the play exploring that possibility, with an unflinching, quiet simplicity.
You know who didn’t like this play much? Charles Isherwood of the New York Times, who reviewed both the original Chicago production at the Steppenwolf and the later Broadway version. He seemed troubled by the fact that, broadly speaking, certain of these dramatis personae have appeared in other plays and a good many television shows–the young man who wants to be an artist, the thugs who come round to collect a gambling debt, the cops who are always hanging around (it’s a donut shop, get it?). That criticism just didn’t register with me. This is solid writing, impervious to cliche. No one ever says, “Gawd, a traveling salesman? Couldn’t he think of something more original?” about Arthur Miller’s great classic. Or maybe the problem is that Isherwood didn’t see this memorable production.