‘Sugar Daddy’ Review: The Grief Comes Out in Laughs

In some cultures, keening over a casket promises cathartic release. For the writer and performer Sam Morrison, a self-identified “anxious, asthmatic, gay, diabetic Jew,” vocalizing his pain means barreling through punch lines at high speed, pumping the brakes every so often to split his heart open, in the solo show “Sugar Daddy,” now running at Soho Playhouse.

Morrison, who at 28 calls himself “an old queen” by New York standards, admits that the recent death of his boyfriend of three years is all he can think about. Well, that and one other thing.

“Sad gay men are objectively just the horniest people in the world,” Morrison says, citing a conversation with his therapist who assured him the combination of feelings is totally natural.

Indeed, sex fuels much of Morrison’s observational humor throughout the 65-minute show, in bits that point to the absurdity of attraction to skinny people (“We’re always shivering and getting kidnapped!”), sex between straight people (“The creepiest part is that they only do it in private?”) and dirty talk near a partner’s rear end (“I don’t wanna get any words stuck up there!”).

Morrison’s blue humor might seem almost juvenile, but he tells us it’s at least partly his way of facing an overwhelming loss. “Grief is disgusting,” Morrison says, and it erupts in unexpected combinations of impulses and bodily fluids. His partner, Jonathan, who was 26 years his senior and whom he calls “the hottest daddy” in Provincetown, where they met, died from Covid-19. (Based on audible guffaws and sniffles in the intimate venue, an older generation of gay men, who experienced the untimely deaths of loved ones to a different virus, may relate to Morrison on an especially personal level.) Candid details from Morrison’s relationship — Jonathan’s big belly laugh, the secret language they developed during quarantine — underline the absence it leaves behind.

Amid a sometimes frenzied array of tangents, two confrontations anchor Morrison’s progress through mourning: the time he was mugged but refused to hand over his phone because his pictures of Jonathan were saved on it, and when he was chased by a hungry flock of gulls seeking the “gay little raisins” Morrison had pulled out to fix his blood sugar levels after he was crying on the beach. Both anecdotes, which Morrison weaves into a sort of narrative throughline, connect him to Jonathan in ways he’s found useful in trying to move forward.

The quicksilver shifts from vulnerable sincerity, a tremble of heartache in Morrison’s voice, to arch sass and polished panache are remarkably fast and furious. Under the direction of Ryan Cunningham, Morrison’s favored rhythm is one of sustained escalation, his energy rising like the shriek of a teapot until it’s eventually deflected into a non sequitur. Set to boil, remove from heat, repeat. The crosscuts are familiar tools for comedians facing the unthinkable, even if Morrison often uses them to look away. Still, he is exceptionally present throughout, whether leaning into his self-ascribed signifiers — gay, millennial, Jewish — or describing the turmoil he appears to grapple with in real time.

“Sugar Daddy” is a kind of group therapy, Morrison says; the only way he knows how to get through his experience is to talk about it. Turning his tragedy into comedy doesn’t mean it makes any more sense. But if joking can make grief less sacred and more profane, what’s a bit of laughter between tears?

Sugar Daddy
Through Feb. 17 at SoHo Playhouse, Manhattan; Running time: 1 hour 5 minutes.

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