“You’re gonna get crushed,” taciturn Vietnam War draft “evader” Arthur warns the buoyant young black man Franco, who shows up at Arthur’s dingy uptown Chicago doughnut shop desperate for a job and absolutely exploding with cockeyed optimism about his own future as the great American novelist.
“Don’t you believe in possibility?” the irrepressibly optimistic Franco responds.
Unlike playwright Tracy Letts’ scary “Bug,” or his first play, the edgy “Killer Joe,” or the 2009 hyperdysfunctional-family Pulitzer Prize winner “August: Osage County,” “Superior Donuts” — onstage in a regional premiere at TheatreWorks — is both funny and uplifting, even hopeful. It’s a vision of present-day America, warts and all, as glimpsed through the personal stories of several intriguing characters.
Premiering at the Steppenwolf Theatre last year before opening on Broadway, “Donuts” focuses on the slowly evolving relationship between two principal characters.
One is old hippie Arthur, who inherited the dinosaur of a shop — now across the street from a Starbucks in a gradually gentrifying neighborhood — from his autocratic Polish father.
The other, self-described self-starter Franco, harbors a shameful secret of his own. You know that the two men — of different generations, races and backgrounds — will somehow change each other’s lives.
Just how that happens, and how the lives of others in the multicultural neighborhood are affected, makes for poignant drama.
The TheatreWorks ensemble, directed by Leslie Martinson, is terrific. As the pessimistic Arthur, Howard Swain is shambling and likable, a humorous foil for Lance Gardner’s captivating, dynamic Franco.
Similarly, the awkward courtship between Arthur and Julia Brothers’ lanky, tough-and-vulnerable neighborhood cop is perfectly calibrated.
In other roles that could easily have been played as stereotypes, Joan Mankin is endearingly wise as the local bag lady and Soren Oliver is ultimately sympathetic as the overbearing Russian-immigrant video-shop owner next door.
Gabe Marin as a well-dressed Irish-American criminal with a stomach ulcer, Elias Escobedo as his menacing henchman and Michael J. Asberry’s Trekkie cop are limned with great specificity and individuality.
Even Jon Deline in a tiny role as the Russian immigrant’s newly arrived nephew is exactly right. Martinson and cast bring a simple dignity to each character.
Kudos also to Tom Langguth’s carefully detailed set, with its old-fashioned wall phone, counter and stools and colorful trays of doughnuts. A luminous snowstorm (beautifully lit by Steven B. Mannshardt) and the funniest fight scene you’re likely to see onstage (choreographed by Jonathan Rider) enhance an exceptionally strong production of an appealing, albeit somewhat predictable, play.
Presented by TheatreWorks
Where: Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes Oct. 31
Tickets: $19 to $67
Contact: (650) 463-1960, www.theatreworks.org