Be advised: Goodman’s ‘Ask Aunt Susan’ deserves a ‘like’
By HEDY WEISS Theater Critic June 2, 2014 7:18PM
(L to R) Alex Stage (Aunt Susan), Robyn Scott (Cleo), Meghan Reardon (Betty), Marc Grapey (Steve) and Jennie Moreau (Lydia) in Ask Aunt Susan by Seth Bockley. Photo by Liz Lauren.
‘ASK AUNT SUSAN’
When: Through June 22
Where: Goodman Theatre,
170 N. Dearborn
Info: (312) 443-3800;
Run time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Updated: June 25, 2014 12:03PM
This is the city that once upon a time gave us those rival sibling advice columnists Ann Landers and Abigail Van Buren. But now comes a 21st century take on the phenomenon by way of the Goodman Theatre’s world premiere production of “Ask Aunt Susan,” Seth Bockley’s hilarious but emotionally blistering satire about how “advice” is generated, monetized and viralized on the Internet, and how human connection in the tech age has grown as strangely disconnected as the electronic cloud itself.
Bockley suggests what we already know (yet do not fully rebel against): that the Internet is capable of distributing the new “opiate of the masses” in the form of a tremendously potent “feel good” drug — one that can quickly become a pseudo-religion substitute capable of proselytizing (and advertising) with warp speed, immense efficiency and profoundly questionable ethics.
In a script loosely based on “Miss Lonelyhearts,” Nathanael West’s classic blackly comic novel from 1933 (when newspapers were the more limited carriers of such “advice”), Bockley captures the intensified level of greed, need, paranoia and chicanery that comes with the dot-com world and its invisible content-creating desks. Yet he also manages to inject just enough hope to keep you from severing all ties to the grid and your humanity.
It all begins as these questions are projected on a screen: “Are you alone, afraid, suffering, angry, anxious, unloved, hiding, adrift?” The unspoken message is that you can find an antidote online.
It might come by way of Jonathan (Alex Stage, whose seeming blandness works just the trick), soon to morph into the web advice columnist, Ask Aunt Susan. A 20-something guy with college loans, shaky commitment skills and a meditation-and-organic-food-loving girlfriend, Betty (the spot-on Meghan Reardon), Jonathan is reeling from the loss of his job at the heavily litigated online rating service Yelp when his quasi-criminal ex-boss, Steve (Marc Grapey, a satyrlike satirist who someone must cast as Nathan Detroit), proposes a far better future for him.
Turns out, Jonathan is a whiz at channeling Aunt Susan — blending his rapidfire response system and own inadequacies with large helpings of Betty’s “reach out and hug the world” mentality to soothe the troubled souls and warped self-esteem of his (mostly) female followers. Of course he is really only capable of hugging cyberspace, but that’s enough to make him — as well as Steve, and his shrewd, cougarlike wife, Lydia (a perfectly acid-tinged Jennie Moreau), almost instantly successful.
There is more, too, including two diner waitresses and a bartender (all brilliantly played by Robyn Scott), but I will not divulge more here. Suffice it to say that Henry Wishcamper’s whip-smart casting and flash-drive direction is ideal, as is Kevin Depinet’s inspired set (sharply angled ceiling panels of hammered tin that pay homage to “Miss Lonelyhearts,” and cheap office tiles evocative of every low-rent office).
One favorite bit of dialogue should seal the deal. After Jonathan orders waffles and coffee at a diner there is this exchange:
WAITRESS: You got it. Do you need anything else?
JONATHAN: Like, literally or metaphysically?
WAITRESS: How ’bout from the menu?