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ACT Theater delivers up a delicious double-treat of Alan Ayckbourn for its second production of the season.

OK. Not REALLY a double-treat; there’s only one play on the bill, Sugar Daddies. But, in a way, it’s a double treat because he also directed this play; so if you want to see a play the way the director intended, this is it.

Ayckbourn–Sir Alan Ayckbourn now, and well-deserved–is one of the great modern English playwrights. He had his first hit play in 1967, and now written 77 plays and has had as many as four of them playing at one time. One can’t help but wonder if he gets short-listed for the Nobel Prize.

Any Ayckbourn play deserves attention, and Sugar Daddies, his most recent, is no exception and ACTs production is its American premier. Another reason for media attention, and an excellent reason to see it.

Of course, the fact it’s a great play, well done, doesn’t hurt either. Sugar Daddies is basically a comedy, with great lines zinging across the actors’ lips (“he has the intellect of a fridge magnet”). At the same time, though, it’s a very serious look at the different personas we put on for different people at different times, and poses the question, “How do we find our way back from there?”

The set-up is simple. A few days before Christmas, Sasha Vine, a young woman new to London, brings home Santa Claus.

Not really. He’s actually an old man named Val, dressed as Santa, who was nearly hit by a car. Sasha brings him to her nearby flat to see if he’s unhurt, and to arrange a ride back to his place.

The seventy-year-old Val wants to be called “Uncle Val” and, to express his appreciation for her kindness, wants to take her out. But first, he wants to buy her new clothes so she’ll look better when he does.

Of course, the situation doesn’t stop there. Uncle Val insists upon giving Sasha more and more, much to the consternation of Chloe, Sasha’s older step-sister/flatmate. Equally bothered by this is Ashley, another elderly gentleman from the flat directly below. It seems that “Uncle Ashley” and “Uncle Val” have history. Ashley wants to tell her what knows about Val to protect her, only Sasha doesn’t want to hear it.

It’s actually Ashley and Val who are the sugar daddies of the title, for it seems that both want to help Sasha, and both want something in return.

Or do they?

And is Sasha really as innocent and gullible as she seems?

These complex issues swirl about in a context of sexual and generational politics. Ayckbourn carefully keeps his characters and their motives ambiguous, avoiding stereotypes and cheap laughs. The result is a play with interesting, complex characters of both sexes, grappling with identity issues at all stages of their lives. He also, somehow, manages to keep the play from talkiness. One reason is because he resists the temptation to resort to monologues (especially opening monologues), opening the play in medias res. He also throws out enough mystery and conflict, while keeping enough characters onstage.

Of course, a great play deserves a great production, and ACT gives this one its due: Ayckbourn is no stranger to directing, so he directs the action with a sure, firm hand. The cast is equally skillful, giving nuanced performances, and keeping the audience guessing about motives and the truths in our secrets. And Matthew Smucker‘s set designs and Deb Trout‘s costumes trace the character development, perfectly mirroring Sasha’s metamorphosis and her, er, distinctive, sense of style.

Among the cast are two actors new to ACT: Emily Chisholm (as Sasha) and Elinor Gunn as Chloe. One hopes they’ll return. The other members provide these newcomers with great support: Anne Allgood, Sean G. Griffin and John Patrick Lowrie.

The play’s ending comes right when it should; the denouements lead organically to the end, and it doesn’t feel forced or unsatisfied. Not everything is cleared up; just enough to leave satisfied.

It’s like a good meal, eaten but not gorged, and we leave fell-fed, not stuffed or groggy. And a gourmet meal at that.

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