The two Tracy Letts-penned films I've seen were distinctive for their bitter sharpness exposing darker, uglier aspects of human nature often viscerally. His new play, Superior Donuts at the Southwark Playhouse is far gentler by comparison; while not shying away from the darker aspects of life it is generally more subtly done.
Arthur (Mitchell Mullen) is the son of Polish immigrants and runs the family doughnut shop in a poor suburb of Chicago. Well I say run it, he seems to be running it into the ground as the Starbucks gentrification of the neighbourhood creeps ever closer. He gives away doughnuts to his regulars: a homeless woman, two local cops and a Russian immigrant - the latter wants to buy Arthur's store.
Arthur's previous assistant has quit, essentially over an argument about politics and is suspected of being behind the vandalism the store has suffered. When 21-year old Franco (Jonathan Livingston) turns up to take over the job he is full of ambition and plans for the shop but Arthur isn't immediately convinced.
At its heart this is an unlikely friendship story. Arthur is depressed and haunted by the past. He dodged the draft during the Vietnam war fleeing to Canada, his ex-wife has just died and he hasn't seen his daughter for years. Franco is the antithesis, full of life and ideas. He's just finished writing his first novel which he started when he was 14 but he too has a past which is starting to catch up with him.
Superior Donuts at times feels a little plodding but is nonetheless quietly engaging, it is the colour of the characters which pulls it along. Arthur is the gentle soul of the piece caught in the fug of despondency and dejection; you don't know whether to hug him or shake him but you certainly root for him. As you do Franco.
I suspect that Superior Donuts won't stick in the mind in the same way that the films August: Osage County or Killer Joe have but is nonetheless a solidly written and acted piece. They do need to get some slightly less stale looking doughnuts though and perhaps a doughnut shop that looks less like a hovel, this is what the American production looked like compared this production.
Superior Donuts runs at the Southwark Playhouse until March 8 and is 2 hours and 40 minutes including an internal, not 140 minutes as it states on the website.
Mitchell Mullen was in Filth with James McAvoy who appeared in a magazine photoshoot with Mr W.