Chicago Theater Review: ASK AUNT SUSAN (Goodman)

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by Lawrence Bommer on June 3, 2014

in Theater-Chicago

CYBER COMPASSION, OR PIXELS FAKE PASSION

Alex Stage (Aunt Susan) and Marc Grapey (Steve) in Ask Aunt Susan by Seth Bockley, directed by Henry Wishcamper at Goodman Theatre.Like his equally probing The Day of the Locust, Nathanael West’s 1933 novella Miss Lonelyhearts all but skewers its subject: the loneliness of crowds and the desperation that anonymity generates in each and, finally, en masse. West’s seminal work depicts a hard-boiled young journalist who reluctantly becomes a newspaper advice columnist, only to discover that the power of persuasion is a double-edged sword. Supposedly solving his readers’ often traumatic troubles with easy, 100-word answers only alienates them—and himself—more than West’s anti-hero can handle. “Miss Lonelyhearts” is a nom de plume but also a confession of failure. A newspaper can’t be father confessor, psychiatrist, mother, best friend, and career counselor, either in part or in all.

Alex Stage (Aunt Susan) and Meghan Reardon (Betty) in Ask Aunt Susan by Seth Bockley, directed by Henry Wishcamper at Goodman Theatre.Much less the Internet, as seen in Goodman Theatre’s world-premiere of Ask Aunt Susan, presented with technical precision and cascading comic calamities. In playwright-in-residence Seth Bockley’s 85-minute spin-off–but not rip-off–of West’s work, an eponymous twentysomething writer (Alex Stage as a sensitive seeker turned website hack) seeks shelter as a scribe. He’s been tainted by a shakedown scam involving swindling Yelp.com. Now he needs a more regular role to pay off his student loans.

Alex Stage (Aunt Susan), Robyn Scott (Cleo), Meghan Reardon (Betty), Marc Grapey (Steve) and Jennie Moreau (Lydia) in Ask Aunt Susan at the Goodman.The unnamed cyber cipher from Chicago makes a deal from hell with his equally disgraced boss Steve (Marc Grapey, snarling and puffing like an old-fashioned copy-room editor): He will assume the identity of “Aunt Susan,” offering free, megabite-sized advice to life’s weary, wounded, and wronged. Improbably (considering how much competition there is on the Web for unsought or unsound feedback), Aunt Susan becomes a pixel phenom, prescribing “Cliff Notes Confucianism” to the very virtual strangers who command his care. All too soon he finds himself inundated with emails imploring help and hope. Ever greedy Steve develops a scheme to profit from their “need to be needed,” erecting paywalls and invoking crowd sourcing to give Aunt Susan traction and turn her phony compassion into a cash cow.

Alex Stage as Aunt Susan in Ask Aunt Susan by Seth Bockley, directed by Henry Wishcamper at Goodman Theatre.Of course, the course of false journalism never did run smooth. Our Aunt Susan finds friction everywhere—from his New Age girlfriend Betty (spirited Meghan Reardon) who initially believes Aunt Susan can be a “lighthouse,” just as he sees her as a “buoy” in troubled waters.  Despite her misgivings, Susan curiously will become the face of Aunt Susan until she’s as sick of it as her boyfriend. Incarnating the bitch goddess success, Steve’s confederate in crime Lydia (carnivorous Jennie Moreau) tempts him with sex to sell out. Then there’s Jill (solid Robyn Scott), a mousy Colorado waitress who, seizing on his false identity, supposedly threatens the self-proclaimed guru with exposure if he doesn’t pay $30,000. Waxing paranoid and suffering from the imposter phenomenon as his “followers” grow hard to control, Aunt Susan wants out of this “vortex of lies.” He gets it but not the way he expects it (there’s a rich twist at the bittersweet end). But now Betty and her boy can finally get real and that return to their roots has nothing to do with Wi-Fi or cable modems. They’ve “gone analog” and their souls won’t shrink even if their savings do.

Jennie Moreau (Lydia) and Alex Stage (Aunt Susan) in Ask Aunt Susan by Seth Bockley, directed by Henry Wishcamper at Goodman Theatre.However slick, glib, and cunning, Bockley’s transfer to 2014 follows the same storyline trajectory as a very similar expose–Sweet Smell of Success, another tale of corruption by commerce and of one writer/victim’s pursuit of purity. Though he could spend more time exploring Aunt Susan’s guilt over pandering to other people’s pain, Bockley finds the right details, like the greasy spoon facing Milwaukee Avenue that becomes Aunt Susan’s secret office.

Goodman Theatre provides the rest. Henry Wishcamper’s sleek staging boasts multiple monitors displaying Mike Tutaj’s stunning projections of the Aunt Susan website, the email appeals he receives, and the website’s eventual demise, even to the collapse of the coding itself. Wishcamper’s cast supply the human details to complete the picture. These work together and deserve each other–Grapey’s venal opportunism and misogynist hubris, Moreau’s predatory pulchritude, Reardon’s clueless spirituality, Scott’s downhome decency, and Stage’s insecure delusions of grandeur. However faithful to West’s Depression-era desperation, Ask Aunt Susan is very much a parable for the present, taking our temperature to find our fever.

Alex Stage (Aunt Susan) and Robyn Scott (Jill) in Ask Aunt Susan by Seth Bockley, directed by Henry Wishcamper at Goodman Theatre

photos by Liz Lauren

Meghan Reardon as Betty in Ask Aunt Susan by Seth Bockley, directed by Henry Wishcamper at Goodman TheatreAsk Aunt Susan
Owen Theatre
Goodman Theatre, 170 North Dearborn
scheduled to end on June 22, 2014
for tickets, call 312.443.3800
or visit www.GoodmanTheatre.org

for info on this and other Chicago Theater,
visit http://www.TheatreinChicago.com

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