ASK AUNT SUSAN – A Web of Deceit
RECOMMENDED: Review Round Up Theatre In Chicago
REVIEWED BY: JAMES MURRAY
Growing up in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, I saw many “new plays” which, much of the time were poorly constructed, consisted of thinly disguised material from classics or material where the writer is trying to make a name. In reality most were just a rehashing of something that came earlier in theatrical history which the general public had forgotten about. While some labelled this “great experimental theatre” I found it gimmicky, lacking heart, unoriginal and boring.
The Goodman Theatre latest new play, Ask Aunt Susan, is material taken from the 1933 novella, Miss Lonleyhearts, a Great Depression-era commentary of urban alienation through the eyes of an eponymous male newspaper advice columnist. In Seth Bockley’s 21st 90 minute one act re-imagining of this tale he has placed it in modern Chicago and newspapers have been replaced by the internet, which for the most part, works really well for today’s audience. Urban alienation is very much at the forefront in a world that has grown cold, money-hungry and mean. However what makes it work is also its greatest weakness; we really don’t care much about the characters (as is the case in many new plays dealing with contemporary issues and people). The chosen themes in today’s new plays do not move or elevate our spirits which I feel is the aim of great art. I think Seth Bockley is a very talented; however I, as an older audience member, do not care much for, or have already seen, the subject matter before. I would love to see a truly original new work by this talented playwright.
Ask Aunt Susan also exemplifies the Goodman’s commitment to new play development. The journey for this play began in 2010 during Bockley’s time in the Goodman’s Playwrights Unit, a year-long program designed to support and develop new works. As I watched I had to question the importance and weight of this play and why it was selected to be developed. I do believe that if the development process continues and the stakes are raised it would benefit greatly. As it stands now there is much dark humor in it (Seth Bockley’s greatest strength) but the story needs more bite and the devastation needs to be elevated. It will be interesting to see its journey from the Goodman.
Under Henry Wishcamper’s direction the humor in Ask Aunt Susan resonates well and he captures much of Bockley’s dark, dry sense of humor. His cast is comprised of some very talented people (Alex Stage making his Goodman debut being one of them and Marc Grapey with a superb comic timing) with chemistry who leads us on this snake-like rollercoaster ride through the world of internet advice chat rooms.
Ask Aunt Susan begins with a young man, (the wonderfully droll Alex Stage) working on the fringes of the buergoning internet industry as a writer and coder. When an ill-conceived scheme to swindle Yelp.com lands him in hot water, Steve (a wonderfully comic and slimy performance) his brash, entrepreneurial boss, decides to create AskAuntSusan.com and advises the young man to moonlight as the online guru, “Aunt Susan”. The scheme begins as a joke, allowing Steve to make a quick buck and Aunt Susan to keep up with his student loans – but Aunt Susan’s followers become incredibly loyal and the constant, desperate requests from readers spark a “need to be needed” in Aunt Susan. As his internet reputation mushrooms, so does Aunt Susan’s web of deceit-and soon the phenomenon is much larger than anyone imagined.
As Steve’s wife, Lydia, Jennie Moreau is the perfect counterpoint to her husband Steve. She is manipulative, sexy and, under the Neiman Marcus exterior, filthy. She is the snake in the Garden who seduces Aunt Susan deeper into the brush.
I won’t give away the ending but what is revealed to us is the duplicity of individuals out to make a buck and, much like Wall Street today, leave the ones at the bottom to take the fall when it crashes down. It is also about people’s addiction to technology which is the cause of urban alienation and their inability to form relationships consisting of flesh and not electronics.
At the end of the play is a beautifully haunting tableau reminding me of Voltaire’s Candide reaching out to Cunegonde after the world has defiled and thrown them on the trash heap. All they can do is tend the garden, or what is left of it. Bockley wisely leaves us in the dark as to the outcome.
The set design by Kevin Depinet, with several flat screen televisions suspended overhead is clever and can change quickly to become the various locations. The simplicity of his design and use of angles properly weaves into the feel of the play.
Lighting design by Keith Parham work very well with Depinet’s design in creating the mood and costume design by Alison Siple provided the characters with right looks.
Robyn Scott, playing multiple roles, is one of the funniest and strongest in the cast and given many of the funniest moments. Aunt Susan’s girlfriend, Betty, is played well by Meghan Reardon and is not what she seems. She portrays the typical sheltered Millennia (a duplicitous performance) naively embracing liberal causes that are politically correct so she can fit in with her peers, not really understanding their core. We finally get to see her true core and realize it is all an act. Bockley is making a great commentary on today’s youth.
However the evening belongs to Goodman newcomer Alex Stage who plays the “straight” everyman and his dry, droll delivery triggers much of the humor in his encounters with the others. He possesses a naivety coupled with obsessiveness and, as our guide we find he is the only one in the piece for which we care anything.
I support the Goodman’s Playwrighting Unit but hope they will focus their vast resources in the future on plays that have more substance, stage-worthy themes and characters that can emotionally move and engage us.