Seattle theater has been given one of its greatest gifts of the season in ACT’s production of Alan Ayckbourn’s Sugar Daddies, directed by the legendary and insanely prolific British playwright himself. Playful, with tantalizing hints of sinister undertones, it’s a thrillingly complex work from a writer who never settles for the obvious or the easy. Ayckbourn doesn’t really subvert narrative expectations in Sugar Daddies; his achievement is much harder — fulfilling expectations in a way we don’t expect, with ramifications we may not have considered.
The play’s central relationship is between Sasha (Emily Chisholm), a guileless student from the sticks now living in London, and Val (Seán G. Griffin), the much older gentleman who takes an interest in her after her Good Samaritan act brings them together. Sasha shares a flat with her high-strung half-sister Chloe (Elinor Gunn), whose instant distrust of strangers extends especially to Val, but Sasha is hopelessly charmed. Soon, he’s given her the full-on Pygmalion treatment, outfitting her in fancy dresses and towering heels, and introducing her to fancy restaurants, the opera and all manner of high culture.
Inherent suspicions of Val’s motives seem to be confirmed by new downstairs neighbor Ashley (John Patrick Lowrie), who intimates he has knowledge of Val’s unseemly past, but is Ashley’s acutely protective nature aboveboard in and of itself? Chloe frets while Sasha embraces whatever comes, accepting the vast changes to her lifestyle with a naïve shrug and a giggle toward “Uncle Val.”
Ayckbourn’s dialogue and his loose-but-steady narrative structure are terrific, and he’s found a local cast worthy of the material, especially Chisholm and Griffin, who have a fantastic fractured chemistry. Chisholm is incredibly winning as a good-hearted, seemingly uncomplicated person before turning surprisingly ruthless in an effort to transform herself. Griffin plays the implied duality of his character to perfection, allowing the magnanimous, kindly veneer to wear off ever so slightly, offering a glance at the poison underneath. Or, maybe those less appealing qualities are just the foibles of human nature? Ayckbourn doesn’t paint with broad strokes, and these two exceptional performances follow suit.
While Lowrie doesn’t get quite the opportunity Griffin does, he’s also strong in a performance that’s hard to pin down as concerned or creepy. Gunn nails frazzled, while latecomer Anne Allgood is a treasure as always as a batty, boozy interior designer. Matthew Smucker’s first-act scenic design is appropriately restrained, but he gets to go all out in a second-act reset that threatens to secure the sole rights to “delightfully tacky yet unrefined.”
Sugar Daddies is on stage at ACT Theatre through Nov. 3. Tickets are available for purchase online.