High caliber acting always adds to the rewards of solid plays. Think of last year’s Company One premiere of "The Brother/Sister Plays" and the Lyric Stage Company of Boston’s "Broke-ology."
Sometimes a strong ensemble can even cover the weaknesses in a lesser play from an important playwright. A good case in point is the scrumptious Lyric Stage Company premiere of the recent Tracy Letts comedy “Superior Donuts.”
Set in a small donut shop in Uptown Chicago -- credit Matthew Whiton’s well-detailed design -- “Superior Donuts” has all the ingredients for a memorable entrée. Arthur Przybyszewski, the pony-tailed, jeans-wearing owner of the title shop, is trying to keep his family’s six-decade establishment viable in the face of competition from Starbucks.
Making the challenge all the more formidable is the immediate back-story of the play -- a break-in that may be a high damage robbery or something worse. Enter black novice writer Franco Wicks with enough good ideas to become a successful entrepreneur. Wicks has already written what he hopes is the Great American Novel. If Arthur seems to cling to the past, Franco clearly hopes to move them both into a bright future. Adding to an uncertain mix are Russian property owner Max Tarasov, who hopes to gobble up the shop, and volatile gangster Luther Flynn, who means to collect a large loan that Franco despairs of repaying.
Change is immanent for Arthur, but what kind? Will a tough economy force him to sell Superior Donuts? Will Franco’s plans for making the shop more appealing turn things around? Letts’ busy scenario may sound a bit like an inner city sitcom, and some of the play’s predictable confrontations do reinforce that impression. Savvy theatergoers will expect something to happen to Franco’s novel once he admits to having only his hand-written original. They will also have a good idea whether a potential romance between Arthur and caring policewoman customer Officer Randy Osteen will go anywhere.
Tony Award best play nomination notwithstanding, “Superior Donuts” seems more of a string of alternating hopeful and alarming situations than the kind of fully realized story-telling in Letts’ best work. If audience members at the Lyric Stage Company do not seem to care about these theatrical holes -- for the record, most theatergoers were giving a standing ovation to the performance I saw -- company artistic director Spiro Veloudos and a superb cast are the obvious reason why.
Veloudos has sharply paced all of the encounters and assembled a very expressive ensemble. Will Lebow, one of the Hub’s premier actors, is so convincing as past-cherishing Arthur that he is able to make his character’s repeated audience-addressing monologues as fully absorbing as his lively exchanges with Franco.
Equally winning is Omar Robinson in a breakthrough performance as Franco. Robinson has been gaining deserved attention in a variety of Shakespearean roles with area companies (Actors’ Shakespeare Project and Shakespeare NOW! among them). The role of Franco gives him a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate his ability to evoke the charismatic as well as the vulnerable in a fully rounded character. The supporting cast make the most of less satisfying characters. Steven Barkhimer captures Max’s bravado and self-importance. Karen MacDonald brings pathos to Randy’s understated hunger for romance. De’Lon Grant has all of fellow officer James Bailey’s caring as a would-be matchmaker. Christopher James Webb is properly menacing as Luther. “Superior Donuts” will satisfy a theatergoer’s craving for feel-good messages. Admittedly, Letts brings some compelling attention to Arthur and Franco’s efforts at cooperation and understanding.
If the recipe is not a keeper, at least Veloudos and company have made the final product a savory two-act snack.
Superior Donuts, Lyric Stage Company of Boston, Boston, through February 4. 617-585-5678 or lyricstage.com.