If anyone has been looking for a new stage or screen Lolita, that search can come to an end: Playing a 17-year-old child-woman with a come-hither lower lip and an insolence that is both attractive and a little scary, 19-year-old Stephanie Leonidas makes an extraordinarily arresting heroine in 22-year-old first-time dramatist Lucy Prebble’s “The Sugar Syndrome,” an only marginally less promising play.
To be sure, Prebble’s material is emotive enough on its own terms not to need Marianne Elliott’s excitable production for the Royal Court’s studio-sized Theater Upstairs. (Elliott, who brought a crystalline eye to the Donmar’s superb recent revival of “The Little Foxes,” made headlines on Broadway last season as helmer of the Hilary Swank revival of “The Miracle Worker” that never reached Broadway.)
But even when Prebble’s narrative, or one or another supporting performance, heads over the top (“You love me? you don’t even know me!,” is a climactic outburst one can hear coming miles away), Leonidas’ damaged Dani lances the audience with a fiery glance or forward shoulder thrust.
Among Leonidas’ numerous achievements is to embody, seemingly without effort, what Henry James called “the awkward age,” that defining cusp between innocence and experience capable of impaling the unwary on emotions for which they don’t fully possess the words. Not that the character of Dani lacks for language. As swift to let fly with barbs and clever ripostes as she is fluent in computer chat rooms, Dani knows how to deliver an affective knuckle blow (or, earlier, a lecture on Pilates) to her well-meaning fusspot of a mother, Jan (Kate Duchene), just as she can raise the libido of her chat-room buddy, phone salesman Lewis (Will Ash), to a literally orgasmic pitch.
But when Dani cedes control — most crucially in her friendship with convicted pedophile Tim (Andrew Woodall), who had initially taken Dani’s Web persona to be that of an 11-year-old boy — her deliberately ripe demeanor seems all at once to go slack. “I’m not sure anyone sets out to be cruel,” her mother says in an eleventh-hour attempt at comfort. And yet Dani, newly wise beyond her years, has ready her own sharp reply: “But they get there.”
Prebble’s play in some ways recalls Paula Vogel’s (superior) “How I Learned to Drive,” this time seemingly written as a corrective to a tabloid-happy British culture that is forever teasing a voyeuristic public with reports of rampant pedophilia.
One might wish for an arc that were a little less pat — the supposedly “normal” Lewis is revealed, in the wake of rejection, to have psychotic tendencies that may run as deep as those of the once-dangerous child-lover, Tim, a thirtysomething classicist who on the surface couldn’t be more articulate and self-aware.
And yet, even as you’re anticipating “The Sugar Syndrome’s” every gear change (including an explanation of the mystifying title, which arrives right on cue), Prebble lifts yet another lid on the varieties of bruises, physical and emotional, that link her four characters. And Prebble chronicles with great skill the way in which parents and children often have the goods on each other, in this case the revelation of Jan’s husband’s adultery — which turns out not to be any revelation at all.
Director Elliott might have muted somewhat Ash’s bumbling turn as the shy, sexually inexperienced Lewis, a 22-year-old who keeps stacks of the magazine NME under his bed, thereby persuading Dani of his virginity. (Why would that be?)
But the director exerts a tighter grip over the story’s changeable central dynamic — the shifting rapport between the furtive-eyed Tim and his young defender of sorts, Dani, who is willing to give a hearing to desires on which society turns a resoundingly deaf ear.
“There are some things we can’t help, aren’t there?” Dani asks later on in a play that, for all its characters’ attempts at connection, finds its live-wire heroine finally alone.