THE BASICS: SUPERIOR DONUTS, a play by Tracy Letts presented by Road Less Traveled Productions, directed by Lucas Lloyd, starring Steve Jakiel and Jake Hayes runs through October 27, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 at Shea’s 710 Theatre, 710 Main Street (corner Tupper). (1-800-745-3000). www.roadlesstraveledproductions.org Runtime: under 2-1/2 hours with one intermission (full service well-appointed bar and spacious lounge)
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: With a vibe close to OVER THE TAVERN which celebrated life centered around a bar in Polish Buffalo in the 1950s, SUPERIOR DONUTS depicts a family enterprise that also serves as a sort of community center. We meet aging, pony-tail jeans and flannel shirt wearing baby-boomer Arthur Przybyszewski (say “SHIB-ih-SHEF-skee”) whose donut shop has fallen on hard times but, for some reason, he seems sadly resigned to this. Enter brash, energetic, inexperienced but with million great ideas Franco Wicks who needs a job and, through a barrage of words, gets hired. At first you think that maybe this is a play about generational conflict or maybe race (Arthur is in his 60s and white and Franco is just out of his teens and is black) but there’s a whole lot more to both owner and employee than meets the eye. Each one gives as good as he gets. And, if you’ve seen the television sit-com of the same name, this is so much richer and deeper, without the set-up jokes and the cheesy laugh track.
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: A few days ago, a friend, talking about the Irish Classical Theatre’s recent show, said “How could it not be great? They had Buffalo’s best actors on stage.” Well, yes, they had many of Buffalo’s best, but these are heady times and there are A-listers on stages all across Western New York from the suburbs to the inner city to “The Theatre District” on Main Street, anchored at the north by Shea’s 710 Theatre (the former, and freshened up, Studio Arena). And that’s where Road Less Traveled Productions (whose usual home anchors Main Street to the south) has mounted SUPERIOR DONUTS, which was a hit for them what, eight years ago? Of that production, Steve Jakiel is the only veteran on stage, but he fits the part so perfectly, why mess with success?
And the supporting cast includes other A-listers, such as the wonderful Lisa Vitrano as Police Officer Randy Osteen and the always weirdly fascinating (HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE or ANNAPURNA) John Profeta as Russian entrepreneur Max Tarasov (with dialect coaching by Jenn Toohey). Other cast members include Gabriel Robere as the understanding cop, Tina Rausa as the alcoholic Lady Boyle, Dave Hayes as bad-guy Luther Flynn (and, FYI, it’s okay to boo his character at the curtain calls), Johnny Barden as Flynn’s thug gopher, and Dave Spychalski as the gentle giant Kiril Ivakin.
But everybody in the theater fell in love with the character Franco Wicks, the young man running away from one thing and running toward another with breakneck speed. A lot of that love was for local actor Jake Hayes whose name has appeared on a number of Buffalo playbills as “Ensemble.” That’s kind of like being one of the sharks, but not even Left Shark, at Katy Perry’s Superbowl halftime show. And, he was phenomenal (and Artie nominated) as the voice of Audrey II in O’Connell & Company’s LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS. But you never saw him.
Well, you can absolutely see him bring the house down in this production of SUPERIOR DONUTS, including a spot-on imitation of Stevie Wonder. Okay casting directors, this guy can sing and he’s cute and funny and the audience went gaga.
This is a good play for our time, with a positive view of police, in the form of two beat cops who are aware of the neighborhood. And it’s a mixed community of black and white, older and newer immigrants, older businesses (as in the donut shop) and newer chains (such as Starbucks) opening up. And, it works. Characters are selfish and self-centered, as we all are, but in the end it’s a sweet play and, in this day of polarized politics, we are reminded of former times where the social fabric was torn, but are shown what love, on a very local, personal level, could look like again.
Once again, RLTP resident Set Designer Dyan Burlingame has done a bang up job with hammer and nails and a lot of scrounging and creativity, coming up with such perfect details as the checkered linoleum floor, the old clicking radiator, the classic diner/donut shop stainless steel counter stools, the cash register, and the picture window from which we seen various characters approach before their entrance, which was something different, and realistic, and appreciated.
The lighting, a collaboration one would think, between designer Nick Quinn and director Lucas Lloyd, effectively moves us from scene to scene, signaling a new day at Przybyszewski’s shop or a new insight from the man himself. And kudos to Production Coordinator Hasheen Deberry and Technical Director Lou Iannone for coordinating all of that.
The only weak link in the production was the too stagey, less than realistic big fight scene. I know that in Hollywood movies we see professional stunt doubles step in, the director has the advantage of quick cuts, and changing camera angles can do a lot to add an illusion of realism. On stage there are no doubles, it’s always one continuous scene, and there are no changing angles, per se, although the actors can turn and use their bodies to conceal. Having said that, there have been some spectacular fight scenes recently, up at Shawfest’s CYRANO DE BERGERAC, and locally with actors Adriano Gatto realistically mixing it up with Anna Krempholtz (they’re both professional fight directors) in ‘TIS PITY at Irish Classical or Jamie Nablo (as Lady Macduff) getting whacked at Shakespeare in Delaware Park’s MACBETH. All memorable.
Academics often talk about theater being a shared, communal experience, and sometimes I feel that and sometimes I look at those around me the way I look at other drivers wondering who they hell these people are. Well, I think we all felt the same about this production and there is one moment in the second act where the entire audience gasped in unison. Not through some cheap theatrical trick, but through some very careful development. And, without that gasp, the final words of the play “America will be” wouldn’t have been as powerful as they were. And they were.
UP NEXT: At Shea’s 710 Rochester’s Geva Theatre brings us AT WIT’S END (November 5-10) the story of American humorist Erma Bombeck. Then, from December 5 through the 22nd, MusicalFare brings its musical CHRISTMAS OVER THE TAVERN to the big 710 stage.
For Road Less Traveled Productions their Resident Playwright Jon Elston revisits his crime drama THE INTERROGATION ROOM (November 1 – 24) “with fresh insight from our contemporary vantage in this timely revival of his Artie Award winning play.”
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!