Sam Morrison’s poignant Sugar Daddy has been “on the boards” for just under a year, but first coming to prominence at last year’s East to Edinburgh presentations at 59 East 59th Street Theatres as the Brits say “with a proper sendoff” before he struck gold at the Edinburgh Festival in August. It was only a matter of time before this jewel of a show received a longer run here in New York. It is truly a comfortable fit at SoHo Playhouse, with the only pity being it doesn’t have an open-ended run.
Sugar Daddy is so many things. It is an off-beat love story; it is an expression of love as much as it is an expression of grief. Most importantly, it is an intensely personal story that he has chosen to share with total strangers, yet we don’t feel like strangers when he’s done.
He begins unseen on a microphone, “Hello and welcome to my grief group. I’m doing this because nothing helps…There’s three reasons comedians do what we do – to take, to connect, and to give. I’ve been in a lot of grief groups, but none of them are as helpful as doing this show because you guys can’t talk. I’m here to take.” Actually, no, that’s not true. Sam gives the audience a lot of himself. He jumps right into self-deprecating humor. When his doctor tells Sam he has diabetes, she encourages him to talk about it to get through it. He responds, “You must not be familiar with my people. There’s not a lot of perks being a gay Jew. But if you’re telling me the cure to diabetes is complaining, it’ll be gone in a week.”
He tells us about standing up to a mugger. “He said, ‘I have a gun, give me the phone.” And I said, ‘No.’ I know, isn’t that funny? I know we just met, but I think we can all agree that was off brand. I’m an anxious asthmatic gay, diabetic Jew. We’re not known to excel in moments of crisis. If you ask me for my phone charger right now, I’d be like, of course, just take the whole phone. If you’re looking for the nudes, they’re under Israel Trip 2012.” This bravery was because all the photos he had of his recently deceased boyfriend were on that phone. In the heat of the moment, he doesn’t remember that all of his photos are backed up into the Cloud, but in the exchange offers his wallet so he may keep his phone. Sadly, the wallet had belonged to his boyfriend. Never fear, but he does end up with the wallet returned. Divulging the details of that event here would be giving away one of the most hilarious ironies Sam shares with us.
His sexual exploits are unabashedly laid out for us, but only in the context of showing us the dichotomy of who he was and then who he became when he fell in love with Jonathan. Really, if you were expecting Julie Harris in The Belle of Amherst, you came to the wrong theatre. Jonathan and Sam meet as probably the only two single men at a Provincetown gay bear weekend. For the uninitiated, a bear is a full-figured man, or at least one that doesn’t make it a habit of skipping meals. They can be young; they can be old. Sometimes bears are attracted to each other, but in the case of Jonathan and Sam, it was a beautiful case of opposites attracting. Jonathan was Sam’s senior by over twenty years, but it was kismet.
During the Covid lockdown they quarantined together in Sam’s grandmother’s house in Rockland County. He shares, “We got really into gay history and I don’t mean him telling me about his childhood. I mean we really found out a lot of US presidents were gay, including Abraham Lincoln…Lincoln had a secret gay lover – a senator, his name was Joshua Speed. They wrote love letters to each other, one of them said verbatim – ‘my heart yearns for you comma romantically.’ Another one said ‘you up’?” As Sam describes it, they went into “animal language.” They would be on opposite sides of the house and call out to each other in made-up animal sounds, like sheep bleating. The fact that one was saying “I love you” and the other was responding “no” just meant something got lost in translation. It didn’t mean they didn’t love each other.
The idyll is short-lived as Jonathan does contract Covid and passes away. Jonathan was cremated. Sam gives Jonathan’s parents half the ashes and goes with friends to Provincetown to spread his share of the ashes. Deciding he’s not ready, he keeps half of those ashes and performs his own ceremony with half of the remaining ashes. “Now I just have an eighth of Jonathan…Thank God he was a bear, so many ashes.”
Kudos to director Ryan Cunningham for not reining Sam in too much as some of the moments that are clearly off-script are the most pure in speaking directly to the audience, they are disarming in that they are confessional. Sam finds himself in grief groups: “I’m in three different groups because I like winning them. In many ways, this (Sugar Daddy) is really my fourth grief group. And I’m winning because I have the stage. Grief groups are great until other people start talking. I tend to get competitive in my grief.”
In all seriousness, his food for thought: “Grief of this magnitude is just so all consuming I don’t know how to explain it unless you’ve been through it. But there’s no way to understand it and the more that I try to process it, the more infuriating it becomes. The more you allow yourself to make jokes about it, it becomes a little less sacred, a little bit less untouchable and a little bit less painful.” Therein lies what one takes away from Sugar Daddy…that, and that you’ll never be able to shake the image of Sam engaging in fisticuffs with a flock of Sarasota seagulls over “gay little raisins.”
Sugar Daddy (return engagement: June 21 – 24, 2023)
SoHo Playhouse, 15 Vandam Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit https://ci.ovationtix.com
Running time: 65 minutes without an intermission