25 years of storefront theater in Chicago is quite an accomplishment. Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company is nothing less than an institution, setting a high standard with in-your-lap productions that leave a lasting impact. Their commitment to the craft is both cerebral and straightforward. They are the grease-covered mechanic on the train that is reading a weathered copy of Nietzsche. They are the woman sitting next to him that is taking a virtual trip to the 1893 Columbian Exhibition on her iPhone. They are the contact buzz you get from the kid that just sat next to you. They are the drunken alley fight at 3am that startles you awake and then lulls you back to sleep laughing. Whatever the topic, whoever the playwright, whether you love the show or not; Mary-Arrchie is Chicago on a small stage.
It only stands to reason then that Superior Donuts should fall in their 25th anniversary season. Playwright Tracy Letts has crafted an endearing love letter to Chicago, warts and all. Although far sweeter than previous offerings by this Pulitzer prize-winner, it has its own emotional and physical sucker punches. It is funny, melancholy, brutal and entertaining. It IS Chicago and Mary-Arrchie realizes this Uptown snapshot of a changing city with superior charm.
Superior Donuts tells the story of donut shop owner Arthur’s unexpectedly transformative relationship with Franco, a young man from the neighborhood. While Mary-Arrchie has created a stand-alone production, it is difficult not to at least reference Steppenwolf Theatre’s 2008 world premiere. Friends who saw that performance have even asked, “Why see it again at a smaller theater?”
For one, location. Mary-Arrchie is located at Angel Island Theater, a few doors east of Broadway on Sheridan and just a few blocks from Uptown proper where the imaginary donut shop resides. Located only one Red Line train stop north of the Wilson stop that is heard in the background of the play, Mary-Arrchie’s production is infused with and informed by the energy of this part of the city; so much so that it is practically a site-specific production. In the tiny theater, you not only feel as though you have planted yourself on a stool at the donut shop but you know that you are in the very hood where the action takes place. Theater so often takes us far away, but this production of Superior Donuts is like coming home.
For two, the cast. While Steppenwolf launched this play with an exceptional ensemble and a very polished production, many of Mary-Arcchie’s casting choices deliver more emotional and dramatic authenticity. The show is rougher around the edges and that is perfect. Preston Tate, Jr. is darling as Franco. It is easy to get caught up in his enthusiastic optimism and hysterical wit. Paige Smith is wonderful as Max, the neighboring Russian shop owner determined to buy Arthur’s store. Karl Patthoff creates deceptively menacing charm as Luther, the bookie out to collect a large debt from Franco.
The rest of the cast is wonderful but it is Richard Cotovsky, as Arthur, that completely embodies this story and intimately captures our hearts. He is the daily pot-smoker, high on intellect but stupefied by lack of motivation; a dormant darling plodding along his life with a permanent emotional time-delay. He is as well meaning as one can be when worn down by a past that can’t be reconciled with, nothing totally catastrophic but tough enough to hold him in a melancholy haze. Catovsky’s performance is subtle genius. His facial expressions, especially his eyes, are fabulous; not only expressive but rich with comic and dramatic timing. His nuance in this role is art to behold and much like Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company, and much like Superior Donuts, it IS the nuance of Chicago.
Director Matt Miller plays the script with a subtly excellent build. He lets the story unfold with no heavy-handed tactics. Scenic designers Bob Groth and Jenniffer Thusing create a remarkable shopworn set, detailed to absolute dingy perfection. Although slightly awkward at times, fight director David Woolley choreographs the climactic donut shop fistfight with generous humor and also with much greater dramatic impact than that of the plays world premiere; which was as unbelievable in the original production as a Three Stooges sketch.
Mary-Arrchie’s Superior Donuts is a total crowd pleaser, hitting every mark with the script’s witty dialogue and emotional revelations. It is at times a bit bumpy and slightly sporadic, but that’s the city. Even with its potholes, we happily travel down these streets that we know and love. Mary-Arrchie creates a hysterical and heartwarming theatrical triumph with this outstanding production. Do not miss your chance to see their picture perfect postcard of Chicago.