Superior Donuts By Tracy Letts Directed by Serge Seiden; At Studio Theatre to Dec. 19 The tension is worth the sentimental stickiness

Donut Disturb: A donut-shop owner’s life gets disrupted and recharged when he hires a college dropout.

With Felix and Oscar sparring a few blocks away at Theater J, and a distaff odd couple holding forth across the Potomac in Signature’s Walter Cronkite Is Dead, Tracy Letts’ Superior Donuts offers local audiences a slightly hipper version of the mismatched-soulmate routine at Studio Theatre. Emphasis on slightly: Letts is the guy whose three-act melodrama August: Osage County ripped a family apart in semioperatic fashion, but in Donuts, he’s doodling in a comparatively minor key, offering riffs on friendship, ambition, the American melting pot, and the camaraderie to be found in his adopted city of Chicago. Though the playwright starts the evening with shattered glass—a break-in that serves mostly to introduce Arthur (Richard Cotovsky), the graying proprietor of an uptown donut shop as down-at-heels in the age of Starbucks as he is—the evening that follows is mostly about bonding, not splintering. Arthur’s a onetime draft-dodger who apparently never had much fight in him. Barely making conversation as his customers, his family, and his livelihood drift away, he’s been hanging onto his father’s shop (once an immigrant’s ticket to a better life, now a millstone around his son’s neck) mostly out of habit and inertia. Enter Franco (Johnny Ramey), a boundlessly engaging African-American college dropout who needs a job, and who talks enough for the both of them. Playful and enthusiastic, Franco is as intrepid as Arthur is laid-back—barely hired before he’s imagining a healthier menu, weekend poetry readings, and a romance between the risk-averse baker and the beat cop (Julie-Ann Elliott) who is clearly yearning for more than donuts when she comes back and back to investigate the break-in. Though the mood and method of the play are sitcom-ish, with subsidiary characters stopping by for no better reason than to let the author make Star Trek and Dolph Lundgren jokes, violence will eventually erupt—ear-biting, palm-scalding, finger-breaking violence on stage, and something more off it—though the playwright’s point is that physical violence is ultimately less scarring than the emotional kind. Serge Seiden’s staging doesn’t mine as much comic gold as it might along the way, and the second-act slugfest is too clearly being faked in Studio’s intimate quarters, but the central relationship plays persuasively thanks to a fine, understated performance by Cotovsky, and a downright charismatic turn by Ramey. What the two of them do with a bit of cultural one-upmanship—Arthur bristling when Franco challenges his knowledge of black poets—is worth all the sentimental stickiness you have to wade through to get to it.

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