Please Don’t Encourage Them — Sugar Daddies at ACT

Photo by Chris Benion
Photo by Chris Benion

Published at TheSunbreak.com

At the end of Sugar Daddies (at ACT through Nov 3; tickets), I thought, “Did that just happen?” Yes. Yes it did, and much like with my experience at First Date at ACT a couple of years ago, I can’t un-see it, I don’t understand why people were amused by it, and I can’t let it go — the wasted resources and talent, the “I should have knowns; I mean it’s called Sugar Daddies for crying out loud,” and of course the time I spent debating if it was worth coming back for Act Two, but “I guess I did pre-order that beer and it’s $6 so I might as well sit down.”

I told a few theatre folks about my dislike for this play and the resounding answer was “But it’s Sir Alan Ayckbourn! You can’t say that about him! He’s a genius!”  Then they left me alone feeling sheepish, staring at my shoes, wondering if I had missed something. But no. I didn’t miss anything. It doesn’t even qualify as fluff (and I like fluff when it’s well done). He doesn’t just get a pass for being prolific, even if he has written more plays than his age (a fun fact in my press materials). He can take it. But I can also say that out of the sold-out performance I saw, I was one of only a few who weren’t amused, so chances are it’ll be a smash.

The title says it all. There’s a young girl, Sasha (Emily Chisholm) who is naive and seemingly dumb, captivated by the kindness of a man in his seventies who she calls Uncle Val. He buys her things — clothes, furniture, tickets to the opera, drinks — for nothing, not even a kiss, just to make her happy. She believes him, even though everyone around her says he’s going to want something in return eventually. He begins to change. We see his controlling nature and anger. Everything comes at a price. Etc.,etc. This is played for laughs for the most part, with a few genuinely creepy moments, moving the action slowly and forcing me to check under my seat to see if they misplaced the stakes.

It has the same subtlety and nuance as the storylines you can see on a teeny high school drama about a poor fifteen-year-old kid fantasizing about her English teacher, except the English teacher is seventy and used to turn women into prostitutes. There is no deeper revelation, or even a surprise twist to make the play slightly absurd (which would have made it more palatable). No. It plays out just as you would think — the women are trivial (one, a ninny constantly wondering why her boyfriend doesn’t call her back; two, an older brutalized woman of Uncle Val’s who still jokes around with him as if he didn’t screw up her life; and three, the twit who doesn’t really think anything of all the money Uncle Val spends on her), and of course the men drive the action so it doesn’t really matter that the women are trivial anyway. Bonus: if you don’t have enough “straight man raped by foreign object” humor in your life, Sugar Daddies has you covered.

In the end, Ayckbourn attempts a Hail Mary play, trying to create a complex character out of Sasha when he had written nothing complex about her before. Chisholm does her best to make you believe she was really manipulating Val in some way all along but it’s too little, too late. He does the same with Uncle Val, played by a very well-cast Sean G. Griffin, giving him a moment where the audience is supposed to coo at his manipulations and forget/forgive that we heard he was notorious for beating the crap out of his girls.

This play has one saving grace — the cast. I’ll watch them do things and talk Brit to me anytime. With Anne Allgood (one of my favorite actresses to watch in Seattle), Emily Chisholm (who tries to give depth to a depthless character), Elinor Gunn (who was the only character to consistently make me laugh), and John Patrick Lowrie, Sugar Daddies is, at least, competently performed, even if I’d rather the characters were written with meat to them.

Sugar Daddies comes on the tail-end of a rather frustrating season for me to watch. When taken in context of the rest of their season — mostly about white, male-dominated, hetero-normative, middle-to-upper-middle-class folks, and entirely riskless, Middletown excluded — Sugar Daddies fits perfectly. The answer to that age-old question of how many plays about middle-class, straight, white people, that offer no emotional weight or aesthetic/philosophical queries can you possibly fit in one season? Five. The answer is five. I like that ACT makes theatre affordable and brings new work into the city. I’d like it more if they chose compelling work, too.

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