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J. Alphonse Nicholson Sparkles in “Superior Donuts”

David Sennett (left) as Arthur and J. Alphonse Nicholson as  Franco in "Superior Donuts" (photo by Jonathan Young)

David Sennett (left) as Arthur and J. Alphonse Nicholson as Franco in "Superior Donuts" (photo by Jonathan Young)

Even with two performances under their belts, some of the cast members of the current Deep Dish Theater Company production of Superior Donuts by Tracy Letts still seemed tentative and under-rehearsed during the show’s Sunday matinee. David Sennett as Arthur, the crusty proprietor of a modest donut shop started by his Polish immigrant parents, seemed to have a lingering case of opening-night jitters. He was somewhat stiff and palpably nervous throughout the performance.

The fact that Superior Donuts pairs the phlegmatic Arthur, an aging hippie and draft evader during the Vietnam War, with a charismatic young African-American donut-shop employee named Franco (J. Alphonse Nicholson) only accentuates the hesitations that make Sennett seem a beat behind for much of the play. Nicholson is a regular ball of fire — Will Smith-good, Jesse Eisenberg-good — and his effervescent performance as a supremely self-confident go-getter from a bad Chicago neighborhood is award-worthy. Indeed, this rising star easily outshines veteran actor David Sennett.

Also problematical is Corwin Evans pedestrian portrayal of James, the local cop on the beat who attends “Star Trek” conventions on his days off. Evans rattles off his lines by rote with little or no conviction. He never fully slips beneath skin of his complicated character — who is so tough on the outside, but softer underneath and a Trekkie to boot — and it does not help that he too is paired with another actor whose stellar performance eclipses his own. Susannah Hough is warm and witty as James’ gregarious unmarried partner Randy, who sets her cap for Arthur, who is all but oblivious to her romantic interest in him.

David Sennett and Susannah Hough in "Superior Donuts" (photo by Jonathan Young)

David Sennett and Susannah Hough in "Superior Donuts" (photo by Jonathan Young)

Jay O’Berski provides strong support as Max, the recent immigrant owner of the DVD store next door, and he employs a thick Russian accent to great comic effect. Max wants to buy Arthur out, and expand his burgeoning business into the space now occupied by the moribund donut shop.

Julie Oliver gives a poignant performance as the sweet but increasingly befuddled Lady, a homeless woman whom Arthur befriends. Dan Sipp as the dapper legbreaker Luther and Hampton Rowe as his racist sidekick Kevin contribute a pair of menacing cameos as a local bookie’s hired muscle; and Paul Doherty adds a charming cameo as Max’s hulking nephew Kiril, who turns out to be a gentle giant.

Even though there are a lot of rough spots for director Tony Lea and his cast to smooth out, there is much to recommend about Superior Donuts, which boasts a splendidly detailed set by scenic designer Miyuki Su and the working-class wardrobe created for these colorful Chicago characters by costume designer Angela Herold Cobb.

But it is the charismatic characterization of Alphonse Nicholson as the irrepressible Franco — named for Pittsburgh Steelers running back Franco Harris, not the Spanish dictator — that is the chief reason to attend this Deep Dish production. Franco’s infectious high spirits and his 200-watt smile, before his past sins catch up with him, are what Deep Dish audiences will remember the longest about Superior Donuts.

SECOND OPINION: Feb. 17th Raleigh, NC News & Observer review by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/2011/02/22/1005232/cast-cant-fix-a-play-gone-wrong.html.

Deep Dish Theater Company presents SUPERIOR DONUTS at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 23 and 24, 8 p.m. Feb. 25 and 26, 2 p.m. Feb. 27, 7:30 p.m. March 2 and 3, 8 p.m. March 4 and 5, 2 p.m. March 6, 7:30 p.m. March 9 and 10, and 8 p.m. March 11 and 12 in its performance space between The Print Shop and the future home of the Public Library at the Dillard’s end of University Mall, at the intersection of Estes Dr. and U.S. 15-501, in Chapel Hill, NC 27514.

TICKETS: $19 ($12 students and $15-$17 seniors), except all tickets are $9 for “Cheap Dish Night” on Feb. 23rd.

BOX OFFICE: 919/968-1515 or http://www.etix.com/.

SHOW: http://www.deepdishtheater.org/productions?p=43. PRESENTER/VENUE: http://www.deepdishtheater.org/.

DIRECTIONS/PARKING: http://www.deepdishtheater.org/location.

NOTE 1: Dramaturg Karen Blansfield will give a pre-show “Meet the Play” talk at 7 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 25th.

NOTE 2: There will be a post-performance discussion on Sunday, Feb. 27th, led by Duke professor Bill Chafe, and a “Meet the Designers” discussion on Thursday, March 3rd, with the production staff.

NOTE 3: The Deep Dish Book Selection, Hardball by Sara Paretsky, will be discussed at 7 p.m. on Monday, March 7th, at Flyleaf Books (http://www.flyleafbooks.com/) of Chapel Hill. (For details about the Deep Dish Book Club, click http://www.deepdishtheater.org/news?n=64.)

OTHER LINKS:

The Play: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superior_Donuts (Wikipedia) and http://www.ibdb.com/show.php?ID=484304 (Internet Broadway Database).

The Playwright: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tracy_Letts (Wikipedia) and http://www.ibdb.com/person.php?id=379129 (Internet Broadway Database).

EDITOR’S NOTE:

Robert W. McDowell is editor and publisher of Triangle Theater Review,a FREE weekly e-mail theatrical newsletter that provides more comprehensive, in-depth coverage of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill theater than all of the other news media combined. This review is reprinted with permission from Triangle Theater Review.

To start your FREE subscription to this newsletter, e-mail RobertM748@aol.comand type SUBSCRIBE TTR in the Subject: line.

To read all of Robert W. McDowell’s Triangle Theater Reviewpreviews and reviews online at Triangle Arts & Entertainment, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/robert-w-mcdowell/.

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