The Little Theatre of Virginia Beach’s production of the comedy-drama Superior Donuts by Tracy Letts, directed by Connor Norton, is a thought-provoking piece that, with a few fairly minor exceptions, is delightfully well executed. But be warned, this is not a show to bring the kids to.
The first thing the audience notices walking into the playhouse is the set (design by Jeremy Hollis). We immediately get the sense of a diner style shop that has been ransacked, but seems to have fallen into disrepair long before the place was vandalized, a reflection of the owner’s depressed and disheveled state. The design is simple and effective, but the details really sell it: the dirty black and white tiled floor, the mismatched chairs, the water damage (or perhaps mold) in the seams of the drywall. It is beautifully designed, and expertly built by the set crew.
The show opens without a traditional blackout or curtain. Rather, the house lights fade while the stage remains lit. While the house lights are going out, a character we later learn is Max Tarasov (Celestino Damiano) enters, surveys the scene, and exits. Max then reenters with two police officers, Randy Osteen (Monica Wolfkill) and James Hailey (Philip Banks) who proceed to examine the scene and question Max (whose liberal use of four letter words immediately illustrates why you should not bring children to this show). We learn that the shop belongs to Arthur Przybyszewski (Brian Cebrian), pronounced sheh-buh-SHEV-ski, and that Max has been trying to buy the place from him to expand his own shop next door. When a clearly depressed Arthur finally arrives on the scene he seems unfazed, as though this sort of thing is to be expected.
After the requisite exposition, Arthur hires the optimistic Franco Wicks (Daijereous Poole) to help out around the shop. We learn that Franco is a writer who is taking a break from school to pay off some debts. These debts turn out to have a darker origin than Franco lets on and end up driving both the plot and Franco’s development. The relationship between Arthur and Franco is the heart of the play. They deeply affect each other, developing a surrogate father-son relationship, and, in the end, saving each other from themselves.
There are a number of delightful performances. Of particular note are Damiano as the foul-mouthed Russian immigrant and oblivious bigot Max. Dominic Pacheco makes a marvelous showing in his acting debut as the bookie Luther Flynn. But the real stars are Cebrian and Poole. While they each deliver excellent individual performances, their chemistry is the best thing about this already strong show. Poole’s seemingly effortless comedic presence perfectly contrasts with Cebrian’s bleak malaise. Both actors get to show their versatility as their characters grow and face adversity.
The costumes, designed by Mary Lou Mahlman, are simple but perfectly capture both the realism of the play and the hearts of the characters.
The sound design by Will Rodriguez is mostly excellent. There seems to be a near constant roar of city and weather sounds, which swell each time the shop door opens. From where I was sitting it even sounded as though the sounds were coming through the door, rather than the house speakers. While these sounds often underscore the scenes, they do not distract from the action. The sound is subtle enough that, combined with the appearance that they are originating just from backstage right, they very effectively make us feel we really are in a shop in uptown Chicago.
There is one moment, however, where the sound does become distracting. Cebrian delivers several monologues to the audience throughout the show, one of which is about Arthur’s experience with the Vietnam draft. During this speech, what sounds like either news reports or the reading of draft lottery numbers plays underneath. Moreover, this cue appears to originate in the same place as the city sounds, making it sound as though someone is having a conversation a little too loudly backstage. I don’t know if the placement, or the volume, or a combination of the two is to blame, but this moment took me completely out of the play. It is certainly a neat and potentially powerful idea, but I wish it had read better.
The light design by Jeff Shook is lovely. In the first scene I was struck by the color and placement of the light. It really looks as though the shop is lit by the early morning sunlight streaming through the window. The subtle use of color and intensity throughout the show, following either changes in weather or changes in the characters’ moods, is quite effective in setting the tone.
The bottom line is this: go see this beautiful, funny, heart breaking show, but leave the kids at home. Superior Donuts runs through February 9, 2020 at the Little Theatre of Virginia Beach, every Friday and Saturday at 8:00pm, and Sundays at 2:30pm.
Words by Jimmy Dragas. Photos by Cute E’s Photography.