“It’s one of my lost plays that I feel we can bring back,” says British playwright Alan Ayckbourn of 2003’s Sugar Daddies, which will make its U.S. debut under Acykbourn’s direction this month at Seattle’s A Contemporary Theatre, directed by the author.
ACT has previously staged 10 Ayckbourn plays with other directors. So what prompted this in-person visit by the playwright himself to stage a work little seen beyond his home base at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, England?
“They asked me, is the simple answer,” explained Ayckbourn. “I met Kurt Beattie, the artistic director, when he came to Scarborough two years ago. He slipped me the ground plan of their Allen Theatre, which is conveniently in the round, and he asked if I’d fancy working there.”
Ayckbourn says the play—about a young woman who helps an elderly crime boss after he’s hit by a car, and ends up as his protégée—is based in part on the Faust legend. “It is, in the end, the story of a girl corrupted by worldly goods,” Ayckbourn says. “Do you sell your soul or do you hold on to it? There’s nothing particularly English about it.”
Still, Ayckbourn notes that he’s not planning to Americanize the play for the Seattle production (running Oct. 4–Nov. 3). “I’d been down the road of Americanization early in my career. It turned out to be a very unfortunate choice. If you’re not an American writer, your vocabulary when you’re translating is much narrower. It’s the same as trying to squeeze Tennessee Williams into Cheltenham.”
The author of 77 plays (not including one-acts, children’s shows and holiday entertainments), Ayckbourn has directed American acting companies in two plays previously: Henceforward at Houston’s Alley Theatre in 1987 and multiple engagements of By Jeeves after its stateside debut at Goodspeed Musicals in 1996. Does he find a difference when working with U.S. actors?
“Here [in Scarborough] I have the advantage,” Ayckbourn notes, “of having a rolling company, and they are, to an extent, imbued with the ethos of the way I work and the style in which I write. It used to be difficult for American actors, because they went after the jokes in my stuff and fell flat on their faces—because there are none. Most of my jokes come from monosyllables like ‘yes’ or ‘no.’
“I have to ask people not to treat it like a broad English comedy. The more seriously you play my stuff, the funnier it gets. But these days, because of my age and reputation, if you like, they treat me a bit too reverently. I have to knock the reverence out of them.”