ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., 292-7676, acttheatre.org. $41 and up. Runs Tues.–Sun. Ends Nov. 3.
ACT, building on a tradition of producing Sir Alan Ayckbourn’s plays that goes back to 1976, has for the past few months hosted the prodigious Tony-winning playwright as an artist in residence. The offspring of the shack-up is the American premiere of his dark 2003 comedy Sugar Daddies, which takes a familiar premise—a Faustian bargain between a worldly, wealthy older man with a shady past and a provincial, susceptible young woman—and rides it, well, nowhere terribly interesting. Directed by the author, this innocuous, good-natured fairy tale-gone-wrong features some terrific actors. Yet since the slightly ominous setup promises a conflict Ayckbourn doesn’t deliver, the nearly three-hour evening (including intermission) mostly feels like waiting in a sailboat for a breeze: pleasant enough to be on the water, but little significant movement.
Fortunately for the drifting vessel, an energetic cast and crew provide the paddles. Emily Chisholm plays innocent, dowdy Sasha, who brings home hit-and-run victim Val (Séan G. Griffin, in Santa suit), and right quickly confesses to coming from a family of believers (in Santa, that is). In the course of this clunky Q&A (in which the characters ask and readily answer a battery of questions about each other and themselves), Val recognizes in Sasha the kitten he will spoil rotten. In an interesting departure from the expected quid pro quo, he desires nothing in return but her joy—no sex, no strings. But Ayckbourn systemically saps potential menaces as soon as they appear. Sasha thinks her rent is going up (which might bind her to Val’s largesse), but then it’s not. When neighbor Ashley (John Patrick Lowrie) tries to warn Sasha about the possibly dangerous Val, with whom there is implied history, she implausibly refuses to let him tell.
Such unswallowable details spring from Ayckbourn’s comic craftsmanship, not from believable characters. Yet Sugar Daddies scores its moments, even while paddling in place. Sasha does a hilariously unself-conscious Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle walk in high heels. Anne Allgood does an extraordinary turn as an intimidated past consort of Val’s. And Elinor Gunn brings perennial freshness to the thankless role of Sasha’s sister Chloe, whose boyfriend problems—with a guy we never meet—exist solely to provide every crisis in the story. Little wonder it took 10 years for this small craft to blow across the pond.