The structure of a stage play, the skeleton, if you will, often informs the audience as to what it is about to see. “Superior Donuts,” now playing at Riverwalk Theatre, has good bones.
The play opens on the titular Superior Donuts, a dingy, unkempt hole-in-the-wall Chicago donut shop. It has been trashed by vandals, with heinous graffiti sprayed on the shop walls.
Enter one Max Tarasov, portrayed excellently by Doak Bloss. Tarasov is a Russian immigrant with a clear understanding of the underbelly of the American Dream. He is cynical, calculating and shrewd, and he hopes to buy out the owner of the shop, Arthur Pry-zbyszewski , played by James Houska. Bloss, in this featured role — he shows up only at the very beginning and end of the show — is highly animated with a perfect Russian accent. Max prances across the stage, full of himself, chest expanded and ready to be thumped at any minute. This contrasts well with Houska’s take on the Polish shop owner, a burned-out aging survivor of the hippie anti-war generation who fled to Canada to avoid the Vietnam War. Houska’s character is costumed well, raggedy clothes draped over a perpetually slumping body. His stance is that of world weary insouciance. Houska’s beard, a fully grown out steel wool gray hot mess, speaks volumes about his character.
Enter our second major character, the young and hip Franco Wicks, played by Daniel Bonner, and from here the story begins to unfold. Wicks is the newcomer to this multi-ethnic neighborhood, an African-American who is bright-eyed and optimistic. He has written — in his eyes, at least — the next great American novel. He lands a job at the donut shop and soon begins to persuade Arthur to make a few changes to daily operations to improve business.
Bonner, who is relatively new to theater, might have benefited from some better stage direction. His lines often faded as he turned away from the audience to deliver them. Nonetheless, the dynamic between he and Houska is rich, and through their interaction we learn that Arthur once had big dreams of his own.
Things begin to get dark as two local Mafioso street creeps of unknown ethnicity arrive on the scene to squeeze Franco, who owes them a gambling debt. This is where the production goes awry, with Angela Dawe, a talented actor, being thrown into the role of Luther Flynn, a thug-like enforcer. She/he is accompanied by her back-up, Kevin Magee (Jeff Magnuson). Magnuson is dressed in what appears to be evening clothes for a ballet, and he mostly sneers and snickers. Both characters seem highly improbable, Luther being anything but a gender neutral character. A staged conflict between she/he and Arthur seems incongruous.
Eve Davidson and Erin Hoffman have small roles in this play, intended to add richness to the overall story, but neither sells their role entirely. Davidson gives it her best shot, but she is simply too articulate for her downand-out homeless character. Hoffman, as the Irish cop with a heart for Przybyszewski, sleepwalks her way through the role.
In the end, this small story of despair ends with a flickering spark of hope, advancing the idea that people of different ethnicities and cultures can overcome those differences to pass along the small flame of the American dream.
7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 23; 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 24-Saturday, Feb. 25; 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 26. Friday-Sunday
$15/$12 seniors, students and military; Thursday tickets: $10/$8 students, seniors and military
Riverwalk Theatre 228 Museum Drive, Lansing
(517) 482-5700, riverwalktheatre.com