- Cotovsky, right, finds his character's donuts too crumbly.
When actor Richard Cotovsky bit into a donut for one Wednesday evening performance of Superior Donuts last month, as he does every night, a piece of the dough that is his character Arthur's pride and joy became lodged in his throat. Cotovsky's breathing wasn't totally blocked -- he continued with most of his lines -- but his coughing made it apparent to the audience that he was choking. He and Johnny Ramey, who plays Arthur's assistant, Franco, kept going even as Cotovsky struggled.
"I talked to the guy playing Franco [after the show], and he didn't know what he could have done for me," says Cotovsky. "He could have poured me some water. I could have poured myself some water."
Instead, he finally diffused the tension with an ad-lib: "That's a great donut." he said, as he coughed to clear his windpipe. The audience laughed, and Cotovsky managed to get the crumbs out of his throat enough to breathe and speak normally again. Choking is just one of the hazards of taking a role in "Superior Donuts," a show where donut-eating happens in nearly every scene. But the titular food of Tracy Letts' play is not an ideal snack for the stage, says Cotovsky.
"These particular donuts were crumbly — they get caught in your throat," says Cotovsky. "That's what happened. I managed to maneuver around the choke. That was the only night that happened."
The production uses dozens of donuts each night, but only a few are ever eaten. No one eats an entire donut at any point during the production, says Cotovsky - only a few bites here and there. And as with most of an actor's duties, eating on stage is much harder than it looks.
"You have to pace it out with the lines, and you have to be able to talk with food in your mouth," says Cotovsky. "It's part of the blocking - you work it out so its part of your timing of the lines. You have to know how much food you can have in your mouth and still talk, and know how much you have to chew before you swallow. For instance, when I'm eating that donut in particular, I know I can't eat a lot of it when I first bite into it. But I know Franco has a long line coming up, so I have time to eat more of it then."
Cotovsky is not yet sick of donuts. In fact, he expressed an interest in going to Heller's Bakery in Mt. Pleasant, which provides the donuts for the show, to watch the bakers make a batch from scratch, as his character would.
"You're going to think this is a little pervy of me. I used to say I acted for three things: Laughs, food, and sex," says Cotovsky, who gets two out of three in Superior Donuts (He has a love interest, but she's merely a flirtation). "I don't go by that anymore."
Though Cotovsky understudied for the role of Arthur in the play's debut at Steppenwolf in Chicago, he's always had an attachment to the character. Cotovsky says there's a rumor that Tracy Letts, the Pulitzer-winning playwright who has been a longtime friend from their days at Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago, wrote the role just for him, though Letts has never told him this outright. Cotovsky also had some input in the script. One of the changes he effected was changing a reference to a bar that was too "smamby-pamby" for a character, to one that was a little more down-to-earth.
But in Cotovsky's tailor-made role, choking is merely a secondary hazard. He's actually more worried about getting punched. There's a fight scene in Superior Donuts where an emboldened Arthur has a scuffle with another character, and the fight between the two vulnerable men is painful to watch. Its awkwardness makes the scene more realistic.
"There's been some scary moments in that fight. If it goes too fast, I don't know what's going to happen — it seems like somebody's going to get hurt," says Cotovsky. "I did hurt my hand. I got hit in the mouth a few times. I got punched in the ribs. That's not a good place to get punched."
That's never happened on stage, though — only in rehearsals. So the only time Cotovsky's gotten the wind knocked out of him in front of an audience is last month, when it was displaced by an errant crumb of donut.