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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Superior Donuts
Southwark Playhouse  Spring 2014

Where August: Osage County, by American actor-playwright Tracy Letts, showed a dysfunctional family being torn apart by accumulated passions and enmities, Letts' follow-up, Superior Donuts, shows a created family of friends and neighbours supporting each other through a string of crises.

If it is somewhat less electric and wit-driven than the earlier play, and if Ned Bennett's production here has some weaknesses, it is still a quietly warm human comedy-drama with a lot of appeal. 

The central character is the sixtyish owner of a small donut-and-coffee shop in a yet-to-be-gentrified Chicago neighbourhood. Although something of a hippie and draft-evader in his youth, he has drifted passively into a quiet life that is shaken up during the play. 

The shop is broken into, an ambitious young black man applies for a job and immediately starts making plans for fruit plates and poetry nights, he finally realises that the lady cop who stops in for coffee every morning is interested in him, and the shopkeeper next door keeps trying to buy him out to expand his own store. 

When his new employee gets in trouble and he is moved to help, it breaks him out of his lethargy in other areas as well. Things are not dramatically better at the end of the play than they were at the start, but things are changing for the first time in years, and towards the better. 

It takes the play a while to find its focus, so interesting is the cast of characters (I've actually omitted a few) surrounding the donut maker and so attractive is their obvious warmth toward each other. And it takes a while to realise that the essence of the man's little tragedy is not so much stasis but an emotional withdrawal from the world, so that he can open up more with us, in a string of autobiographical asides, than he can with his closest friends. 

As in August: Osage County, Letts wears his influences openly, and there are echoes of Lanford Wilson, Kenneth Lonergan and (inevitably) David Mamet, along with one direct allusion to The Cherry Orchard. 

Although it is at its core a very slight piece, one senses that there is potentially more to it than director Ned Bennett has found in this British premiere. 

The play is cramped in Southwark's studio theatre and Fly Davis's cluttered set, a climactic fist fight is awkwardly and unconvincingly staged and, at least on press night, the performers all seemed tentative, not just in their lines and timing, but in their grasp of their characters, not even the two central figures and strongest performers – Mitchell Mullen as the shopkeeper and Jonathan Livingstone as his new employee – fully escaping. 

Some of these things are likely to improve with a few more performances, and Superior Donuts, while not quite the must-see that Letts's earlier play was, is still well worth seeing.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Superior Donuts - Southwark Playhouse 2014

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