“Sugar Daddies” may seem simple, almost minimalist by the standards of its esteemed British author, Sir Alan Ayckbourn.
But that’s just on the surface.
This absorbing, ingratiating seriocomedy tucks a psychologically complex Faustian fable into a deceptively breezy May-December romance. You walk away both charmed and chilled by what’s transpired between the characters — a balancing act only a theatrical master can pull off with such organic finesse.
Ayckbourn, whose own staging of his 2003 “Sugar Daddies” just opened at ACT in its U.S. premiere, is famous for experimenting with time and space in some of his more than 70 plays — giving a script numerous possible endings, setting one work on two stages, and so on.
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In this show, the 11th Ayckbourn work ACT has admiringly mounted, there are no such stylistic innovations.
The naive, gregarious good Samaritan, London newcomer Sasha (Emily Chisholm), brings the much-older gentleman Val (Sean G. Griffin) up to her flat after he’s been shaken up in a nearby traffic incident.
They chat amiably, and all’s quite loose and natural — if a bit uncomfortable after Sasha’s wary, more jaded half-sister and roomie Chloe (Elinor Gunn) returns home to find this old coot dressed as Father Christmas in her parlor. (There’s a reason for that touch of surrealism.)
As their close (platonic) relationship progresses, it’s not so surprising to see the scruffy, hard-up Sasha benefit from wealthy “Uncle” Val’s doting generosity. Nor is the ending of this “sugar daddy” relationship much of a surprise.
But what Ayckbourn does here, beside thoroughly entertain us, is deftly transform a Cinderella story into a cautionary coming-of-age novella. It’s also a rumination on the slippery nature of charity, the giving and the taking.
The laughs are there too, of course, in witty jabs at a modern urban jungle where lovers are dismissed by cellphone texts, where intimidation and fear are rampant, where the glittering prizes of trendy (and hideous) materialism are irresistible. And where the rules of male-female relations are up for grabs.
Like the conductor of a chamber orchestra, Ayckbourn expertly guides his excellent cast through all this on Matthew Smucker’s dual-personality set.
Comedy and pathos commingle in every performance. Chisholm’s compelling Sasha may at first seem too childlike and gullible to be true. But as she morphs from a guileless country girl in jeans into a garishly put-together geisha, a brittleness sets in and cracks surface in her wholesomeness.
As Val, Griffin underplays superbly as a suave and adoring suitor, whose sporadic flickers of dangerous anger are rightly to be feared. His rapport with Ashley (the adept John Patrick Lowrie), a shabbier, enigmatic guardian angel whom Sasha also calls “uncle,” bristles with mutual menace. And when the two tangle in an arthritic rumble, they’re hilarious.
An irritating and bummed-out singleton, Chloe offsets Sasha’s sunniness with gloom. But Gunn perfects not only the nasal London drawl and casual cattiness, but also the raging insecurity beneath Chloe’s brittle armor.
And the reliable, unrecognizable Anne Allgood gets a big bang out of the smallest role of Charmaine, a hooker-turned-decorator who converts cozy digs into expensively trashy ones. She may be a coarse and jealous lush, but in Allgood’s hands this used-up crony of Val’s is also heartbreaking.
There have been many (justified) complaints about how few multidimensional female characters exist in plays by today’s leading male dramatists. That doesn’t apply here, because Ayckbourn conjures both women and men of real substance. And in “Sugar Daddies,” none of them are static.
So what does Sasha glean from her awfully big adventure with Uncle Val, which has an ending both satisfyingly upbeat and ambiguous? She learns more about herself, for better and worse, as tends to happen when you grow up.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org