King Leer

What do you get when you pair a Shakespearean tragedy with a contemporary work about a teen bulimic and a pedophile?

Although all four characters suffer the slings and arrows of acute loneliness, Dani is the fulcrum. She's pretty much a mess. She hates her mother (empathetically portrayed by Mary Schnitzer) and is so confused about her priorities that at one point she almost seems disappointed not to have been molested by her father. Dani uses the Internet to find a sexual partner in Lewis, the evening's most enigmatic character. The plot would have us believe he's a loser, yet there's an appealing innocence about Anthony Wininger's performance that adds to the production's unpredictability.

All too soon, Dani takes up with Tim, who is more than twice her age. Their chat-room conversations have led him to think she's an eleven-year-old boy. "Everybody lies," Dani concedes. Tim is almost relieved at the ruse, and soon these two become soulmates. The scenes between Dani and Tim (portrayed with a piercing sensitivity by Terry Meddows in his deepest work in recent memory) are mesmeric, in large measure because Dani and Tim are polar opposites. If Wiles has ants in her pants (not to mention her toes), Meddows is stillness personified. If there's a pillow handy, he'll clutch it against his body as a kind of shield; if there isn't, he'll clasp his hands together. It's as if he'll try anything that will keep his hands to himself. There are few secrets about Dani, but Tim is a human question mark. Is his pedophilia under control? Is he a danger? Is Dani in danger?

Clearly, this quirky relationship cannot come to good. But Prebble's resolution is strangely muted. Rather than build to a climax, the play just sort of stops. At least the author doesn't overwrite; there's nothing to be trimmed here. And until that non-ending, this production, directed by Erik Little, is riveting. There's no way for a viewer to know if Little drew this bumblebee performance out of Wiles, or if he sat back and let her cut loose. Perhaps a mix of both. But he gets the credit for showcasing her at her most nuanced. Follow, for instance, her various hairstyles — from ponytail to flowing to braided, and see how each style captures her waiflike character at that moment. It's also true that Wiles' cavortings never go too far, which suggests that the director was there to pull her back, if necessary.

In an especially unsparing exchange with her mother, Dani cries out, "I'm a child!" That's the key that unlocks these riches. There are lots of plays about children written by adults, but few excursions into loneliness are as fully realized, and as authentically here-and-now, as The Sugar Syndrome.

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