According to Arthur Przybyszewski, the lead character in Tracy Letts' "Superior Donuts," the root of the Polish character is hopelessness, and no one embodies that trait more than Arthur himself, played to delicious perfection by actor Robert Foxworth in a new San Diego Repertory Theatre production.
Seen last as the indomitable King Lear at the Old Globe, the Encinitas-based Foxworth is virtually unrecognizable under a grizzled beard and steel-gray ponytail, his voice pinched into a high, pathetic whine as the burned-out Arthur. Foxworth is the best thing about this frequently hilarious play, which shows the much-lighter and sweeter side of its playwright, Letts (who's better known for his bleak dramas "Bug," "Killer Joe" and "Man From Nebraska" and the Pulitzer- and Tony-winning black comedy "August: Osage County").
Arthur is the passionless proprietor of Superior Donuts, a shabby shop in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood that's been in his family for 60 years. The monosyllabic Arthur is so worn down by boredom, depression and loneliness, he can barely muster a sigh when he arrives one December morning to find his store vandalized.
Arthur, as we learn through his periodic soliloquies, was once a hippie firebrand in the '60s, but he hightailed it to Canada when his draft notice arrived and didn't return until President Carter's general pardon a decade later. Burdened with the weight of his father's disapproval (he died while Arthur was abroad), the failure of his marriage, his estrangement from his teenage daughter and the haunting guilt of his own cowardice, Arthur has retreated so deep into himself, he's blind to the needs of those around him.
But the arrival of Franco Wicks ---- an optimistic young black man who thinks he's written the "great American novel" and dreams of helping Arthur turn his moribund shop into an artsy coffeehouse ---- gradually reinvigorates Arthur's joie de vivre.
Director Sam Woodhouse wrings every ounce of humor from the laugh-packed script, and his casting is expert, particularly in Foxworth (who's a joy to watch as he slowly peels away the layers of Arthur's dreariness to reveal his inner warrior), DeAnna Driscoll as smitten police officer Randy Osteen, and Dimiter D. Marinov, as Russian immigrant-turned-entrepreneur Max Tarasov.
The play treads a fine line between broad comedy and bittersweet sadness, and occasionally the actors' performances are calibrated a bit too high and cartoonish.
The delicate balance is achieved perfectly in Marinov's Max, a hard-working naturalized citizen whose American dream involves taking over Arthur's shop to expand his burgeoning electronics empire next door. Marinov's carefully crafted Max is a mix of fierce pride, protective friend, generous relation, and insensitive drunk. Likewise, Driscoll slowly builds her character, a socially awkward cop with anger-management issues who not-so-secretly pines for Arthur. Also exceptional in a small role is Brian Abraham as gentle giant Kiril Ivakin, Max's Russian nephew.
As Franco, Anthony B. Phillips is funny, irrepressible and quick-witted, but he doesn't have the world-weary, edgy street vibe of a kid who has hustled his way through life. Likewise, you don't know whether to laugh at or fear Stephen Morgan-MacKay as Luther Flynn, the bookie who arrives to collect Franco's gambling debts.
Rounding out the cast with good performances are Keith Jefferson as the "Star Trek"-loving Officer James Bailey; Tyler Herdlotz as the sinister hoodlum Kevin Magee; and Kathryn Herbruck as the doughnut-loving homeless Lady Boyle.
Scenic designer Robin Sanford Roberts' decrepit doughnut shop is highly realistic, and the production is brightened by M. Scott Grabau's lighting and Tom Jones' sound. Kate Stallons' costume are just right, particularly Max and Kiril's matching track suits. And fight director James Newcomb creates a wildly comic battle onstage between Arthur and Luther.
"Superior Donuts" doesn't have the dark edge or meatiness of other Letts plays, but it's fun to watch an actor like Foxworth at the height of his powers in this well-produced staging at the Rep.
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays; also 7 p.m. Feb. 9, 23 and March 2; 2 p.m. Feb. 19; 7 p.m. Feb. 27 and March 6; runs through March 6
Where: San Diego Repertory Theatre at the Lyceum Space Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, San Diego
Tickets: $29-$47, general; $18, students