Tracy Letts won a Pulitzer in 2008 for August: Osage County—fairly or not, once you've got a Pulitzer on the ol' résumé, your work is held to a higher standard than the average playwright. But even if one steps outside the long shadow of Letts' reputation, Superior Donuts feels like a minor work, with darkly funny dialogue that can't compensate for a fundamentally unoriginal premise. Artists Repertory Theatre has produced a number of Letts' scripts over the years—it's to the company's credit that the most worthwhile elements of the current production are its performances.
Arthur (Bill Geisslinger) is a white Vietnam draft dodger who owns a doughnut store in Uptown Chicago—after the death of his ex-wife, he plunges into such a funk that, if he opens his shop at all, it's mostly just to smoke joints and hand out free coffee. Enter Franco (Vin Shambry), a boisterous young black man hired to help behind the counter, whose energy provides a needed jolt to Arthur's passive existence. Unfortunately for Franco, he must be made to suffer before Arthur is sufficiently shaken to emerge from his apathetic state.
This odd-couple relationship is pure formula: Letts' script is at once overambitious and lazy, packing grandiose ideas about race and America and progress into a paint-by-numbers melodrama that's propped up with the familiar old crutch of a white guy just needing some color in his life. (Letts introduces historical and local context by padding the script with flashbacks to Arthur's past, staged with almost comical gravitas by director Allen Nause.)
But the show is redeemed by intelligent performances by its two leads, Geisslinger and Shambry. As the pot-smoking, pony-tailed Arthur, Geisslinger's performance is low key and watchful, grounding a cast that occasionally turns cartoonish. Spastically orbiting Arthur's stoney center is Shambry's Franco, who is so likeable that it's tempting to ignore what a problematic character he is. (A goodhearted hustler toting around the Great American Novel in his backpack, doling out just the wisdom Arthur needs to hear—it's a testament to Shambry's skill that the character seems even remotely plausible.) And despite the script's lofty themes, Letts injects plenty of dark humor into the mix—it's not a bad show, or a boring one, it's just that audiences have rightly come to expect more than stock characters and formulaic relationships from this playwright.