Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

Superior Donuts and Losing the Shore

Also see Tim's reviews of Eyes of Babylon and A Midsummer Night's Dream

James Ijames and Craig Spidle
Photo: Mark Garvin
The Arden Theatre's production of Tracy Letts' Superior Donuts is one of the highlights of the Philadelphia theater season. Filled with raucous humor, meticulous performances, and characters that have depth and humanity, it's a hugely rewarding show.

Arthur Przybyszewski inherited his family's Chicago doughnut shop years ago, but he hasn't done much to keep it afloat. These days, he doesn't do much at all; many days he leaves the shop closed so he can stay home and smoke pot. He was a radical in the sixties, but now the drudgery of his life, not to mention persistent personal problems (his ex-wife has recently died, and he hasn't seen his only daughter in years), are leading him to withdraw from a society that has passed him by. Then the 59-year-old Arthur hires 21-year-old Franco Wicks as his assistant, and things start changing. Franco is cheerful, smart and creative, and he prods Arthur to make changes to the shop and to his personal life. Eventually, though, a crisis arises—one that calls for action and makes Arthur confront his own fears.

Director Edward Sobel's production hums along nicely, creating a nice rapport between Craig Spidle's Arthur and James Ijames' Franco. The conflict between the two that seems predictable at first; there's a racial difference, a generational divide, and a personality conflict, as the talkative Franco seems a mismatch with the brooding, reclusive Arthur. But the connection soon becomes a deep one, and the generosity and warmth the actors show each other help to make a connection for the audience. They're aided by a supporting cast that blends together well, representing the diversity of modern Chicago, including David Mackay as a Russian immigrant businessman fighting for a bigger piece of the pie, Nancy Boykin as a perceptive bag lady, and Jennifer Barnhart and Brian Anthony Wilson as a pair of compassionate cops. Pete Pryor is also good, although the jittery thug he plays here seems a little too close to the jittery thug he played in Theatre Exile's American Buffalo a couple seasons back.

Superior Donuts is full of richly textured characters, and fittingly, it's played on a richly textured set on a thrust stage designed by Kevin Depinet. The stools and linoleum floor really do look like they've been used and abused for six decades. The set feels, like everything else about this production, authentic.

Superior Donuts plays runs through April 3, 2011, at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 North Second Street. Ticket prices range from $29 to $48 (with group discounts available) and may be purchased by calling the Arden Box Office at 215-922-1122, online at, or in person at the box office.

Michael Byrne and
Catherine Palfenier

Photo: Oona Curley.jpg
Losing the Shore is a new play by Catherine Rush which asks the question, "In 1953, when the then-recently defeated presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson boarded an ocean liner to take a cruise across the Pacific, what might have happened on that trip?" Unfortunately, at least the way Rush tells the story, it turns out that there are two correct answers to that question: "Not much" and "Who cares?"

Stevenson is looking for a way to escape the glare of the media and enjoy some relaxation; unfortunately for the audience, his idea of fun is to write a speech about nuclear proliferation. Meanwhile, his fellow passengers are all grappling with existential crises. There's Stevenson's bitter ex-lover Alicia Patterson Guggenheim, the editor of Newsday, who is obsessed with the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg spy case and its implications for democracy. There's Ruth, a young woman who is planning to join a convent and is very intelligent but seems to suffer from a learning disability (the disability seems to be dyslexia, but it's never fully explained by the playwright). There's Ruth's best friend Hortense, who is suicidal after the collapse of her marriage to a gay man. And there's Stuyvesant, an effete, hip-speaking cad in a white dinner jacket and matching sneakers, who comes off as an odd mixture of Dean Moriarty in On the Road and Rudy Vallee in The Palm Beach Story. He's fighting drug addiction and, for good measure, a serious disease too—although when we find out what the disease is, he suddenly turns from a jerk to a nice guy. Again, the playwright's explanation is lacking.

When most people think of Adlai Stevenson ... well, these days, most people probably never think of Adlai Stevenson, but if they do, they probably think of him as a smart, witty, but somewhat dull man with an uncomplicated personal life. Rush's play does nothing to change that image and has no substantial insights into what made the man tick. Stevenson has been the subject of several biographies, but there's nothing about his life (at least as presented here) that explains why he should be the subject of a drama.

As for the additional characters (both real and imagined), Losing the Shore gives us no reason why we should care about any of them. Director Andrew Borthwick-Leslie's lackadaisical production doesn't help matters much. One scene ends with a shocking twist, but the rest of the scenes fade away before our eyes. What's more, each scene is followed by at least two minutes of scenery changes. Stagehands carry furniture on and off the tiny stage accompanied by dreary, languorous music, most of it containing synthesizer squawks that are completely inappropriate to the play's time period. It all makes a long evening seem even longer.

The actors struggle mightily, but only Kate Brennan, as Hortense, invests her character with enough palpable emotion to make her worth caring about. As Brennan stares moodily off into the distance, one can't help wondering what Hortense is thinking about. Probably something like "I wish I were a character in a better play."

Losing the Shore runs through April 2, 2011, and is presented by Bckseet Productions at Upstairs @ The Adrienne, 2030 Sansom Street, Philadelphia. Tickets prices range from $10 to $21 and are available by calling 267-603-3533, online at, or in person at the box office.

-- Tim Dunleavy

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