Superior Donuts: Watching a Man Get Unblocked

Rand Foerster and Johnny McQuarley as Arthur and Franco in "Superior Donuts" at New Century Theatre, Northampton MA.
Rand Foerster and Johnny McQuarley as Arthur and Franco in "Superior Donuts" at New Century Theatre, Northampton MA. photo by Max Hartshorne

Arthur Przybyszewski is a blocked man. Ever since he split for Toronto in 1970, and heard his father’s last word to him…”Coward!” he’s been blocked, and no one, not his ex-wife, not his energetic young employee, not even a woman who wants him can draw him out.

His father started Superior Donuts in a run-down Chicago neighborhood sixty years ago, and it’s all he’s ever done.  Even though people eat yogurt and bananas now, Art sticks with the familiar…and a young buck named Franco brings energy and a threat into his docile world.

You see, Franco has a dream. He dreams big, and talks loud, and pulls, tugs and demands that reticent Arthur come meet him in a better land. He’s got a novel, the Great American Novel, all bound up in ten notebooks kept together with shock cords, and by God, he wants Arthur to read it.

But first, a challenge. He lays it down in black and white: name ten black poets, and if he said Nipsy Russell, the bet for the $20 bill is off.  Like a savant, the blocked up Arthur rattles them off, after the easy ones like Langston Hughes. Boy, he does know his stuff, thinks Franco.

We watch as other characters go to work on this hard shelled man, they want to bring him out too.  Randy, a cop who is a regular at the donut shop comes by to investigate vandalism….it seems a former employee had words with Arthur about the same thing that his father said. She uses this as a pretense to keep stopping in. Now that he’s widowed, hey, she wants to know him, to open him up.  Franco has fun with his boss, ‘get rid of that pony tail, lose those tube socks and Tevas, and can’t you find a shirt with buttons instead of that Grateful Dead tee you always wear?’

We watch Franco, played with an intensity and zeal by Johnny McQuarley (that reminded me of Malcolm-Jamaal Warner) play on the stereotypes, and with the touchy subject of race.  He’s got the job, he’s made a friend, but he has a dark past–gambling debts and bad guys who want their money.  Yet it doesn’t stop Franco from dreaming, dreaming big–he’s got the novel, and has big plans for how great Superior Donuts might be with a touch of cool, a little music, and poets reciting to a full house.

Yet Arthur is blocked. We remember this and can feel it each time the lights go down and the spotlight trains on him as he remembers dark times during the Vietnam war, and the difficulty he had saying just about anything to his wife and daughter, who left him and moved away. Blocked, and it’s tough. Yet the cop doesn’t give up…and after Franco is hospitalized and wrongs are righted, we see Arthur’s passage into a full grown man. He’s chucked the old hippie uniform and is dating the cop. And in a tribute to what can happen when you believe, and let people in, we are left with the final scene of him reaching out to Franco to help him write that novel all over again.

New Century Theatre‘s production of Superior Donuts runs through August 6. Call 413-585-3220 for tickets.