by Sarah Jarmon
Cedar Rapids - Having been a part of Theatre Cedar Rapids' Underground Festival last year, I knew that the Grandon Studio, where I had the pleasure of seeing Tracy Letts' Superior Doughnuts Saturday night, was going to be an excellent venue for actors and audience members alike. The energy amidst the nearly full house had me almost as intrigued as the set, a quaint little shop with an old fashioned cash register, gleaming bar stools, and the word "Pussy" angrily etched upon the wall like a scarlet brand.
A little bell on the door of this aged establishment announced entrances and exits with a tinkling kind of punctuation. And throughout the course of the show, the actors painted us a word picture of the old neighborhood where this fading small business stood; the last remaining piece of a man whose dreams had been forgotten or purposely left behind.
Audience members sat on three sides of the stage which created some sight line issues. And though these issues were acknowledged in Leslie Charipar's curtain speech, I did feel like there were a few scenes where altering the blocking could have increased visibility without distracting from the story, which was quite good.
An oldies tune, reminiscent of 50's diners and old sitcoms, welcomes the audience to the first scene. Max, a neighboring business owner, is making a statement to the local cops about finding the doughnut shop with the window smashed in and the derogatory graffiti on the wall. Steve Worthington, as Max, has a thick accent and a larger than life manner about him. He is equal parts lovable goof and ignorant fool. Worthington executes this nebulous territory well, delivering his lines in such a way that instead of a jerk, we are able to see him as a well-meaning, albeit a bit clueless, fellow who is consistently crossing the line and then back-pedaling hard once he realizes he has done so. His loud, physically exuberant demeanor is in stark contrast to Arthur, the owner of Superior Doughnuts and an unapologetic hippie with a long gray pony-tail.
Arthur has, for lack of a better word, issues. He is loath to open up, and terrified of taking risks, which has made him cynical and lonely. So when a starry-eyed, silver-tongued 21-year-old named Franco bounds into his store and convinces Arthur to give him a job, it is only a matter of time before they clash. But amidst their many disagreements an unlikely friendship blossoms.
Arthur, played with charming delicacy by Steve Weiss, seems to be a bit of a lost soul. He shuffles his feet and seems determined not to meet anyone’s eye during scenes. That is not to say that he didn't connect, quite the contrary, but he engages in a sort of fight or flight manner, utilizing either soft tones and casual gestures or yelling gruffly with his whole body. Weiss never let you fall out of the story, even during the monologues between scenes where you learn about his past. He tells his tale with such conviction and simple grace that you could almost be sitting at a table with him, having a beer.
His new employee, Franco, played by Brandon McDaniel, tries again and again to open Arthur’s eyes to new possibilities and endless opportunities. He spouts ideas on everything from revamping the shop to boost the business and updating his style to elicit the affections of the dorky and lovable lady cop, Randy, played by Nicolette Coiner-Winn, who Franco insists is interested in Arthur.
McDaniel sweeps you up in his energy and makes you want to realize his dreams. He charges onto the stage and lights it up, making us smile again and again. He is the kind of character you wish was one of your real-life friends. But that doesn't mean he doesn't have a past, and his penchant for looking at the sky has made him forget to watch where he's walking, and he's stepped into a dangerous mess.
Scott Davidson as Luther, a bookie Franco owes a lot of money, delivers an air of dangerous that appears effortless. Going from a good-natured lament of his kids playing too many video games to screaming a demand for his money in such a believable temper flare that my heart pounded. Luther’s flunkie, Kevin, played by Nathan Bowden, was funny and intimidating, too, stalking across the stage with an angular bravado that put me to mind of cartoon villains and your standard noir film thugs.
This is a play with a lot of angles. It touches on hope, on fear, and the many social aspects of inner city life. But it stays away from preaching and is never heavy handed. The plot does occasionally feel a bit contrived, and the fight scene did not actually make me fear for the actors, but the characters were well-rounded, perfectly flawed people. They were kind of people that you know. That dedication coupled with the intense monologues that threaded through the play between scenes lent just the right degree of stylized unreality that made this a really enjoyable journey.
This is a gritty, odd, and wonderful play to christen the Grandon as TCR’s newest performance space. Being in such close proximity made me shrink away from Arthur’s wrath, lean in to comfort Randy, and allowed me to see the constantly working jaws of BJ Moeller, the down on her luck Lady. I fell in love with the characters, despite their mistakes, and because of their shortcomings. And even as I write this review, I am not sure whether this play was a tragedy or a comedy. Because though it was funny from beginning to end, it was rife with the tragic realism that life is made of. Go see it and maybe you can tell me, and bring a friend, because you’ll want to discuss it afterward.