In Seth Bockley's "Ask Aunt Susan," a cocky twenty-something tech guy becomes an Internet sensation as a phony female advice columnist. The plot of the drama, in a world premiere at Chicago's Goodman Theatre, is milder than other online hoaxes perpetrated in real life.
Yet Bockley brings a literary pedigree to "Ask Aunt Susan" as a modern-day response to Nathanael West's 1933 novel "Miss Lonelyhearts," which similarly dealt with a male journalist who became emotionally burdened with other people's pleas for help when posing as a female advice columnist.
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"Ask Aunt Susan"★ ★ ★
Location: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago, (312) 443-3800 or goodmantheatre.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday though Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday; through June 22
Running time: About 90 minutes without intermission
Parking: Nearby pay garages and limited metered street parking
Rating: For adults; includes strong language, sexual situations, drug use
Bockley poses uncomfortable questions about what motivates some people to cash in on the pain, suffering and blind faith of others online. He also delights in showcasing some cartoonish and unpleasant characters in "Ask Aunt Susan."
Take, for instance, the title character/narrator, a morally compromised anti-hero. Burdened with student loans, Jonathan (Alex Stage) -- aka Aunt Susan -- bitterly resents losing his previous online job where he excelled as an extortionist bullying small business owners for good online reviews. He also emotionally mistreats his New Age-y and aspiring actress girlfriend, Betty (Meghan Reardon).
So when the website column falls in his lap and his inspirational platitudes make him a surprising sensation, Jonathan becomes both protective and self-aggrandized by his anonymous celebrity and emotional importance in the lives of needy people.
Soon, though, he becomes paralyzed with fear and doubt. He grows wary of his seedy employers, the lascivious Steve (Marc Grapey) and his steely wife, Lydia (Jennie Moreau), who are hellbent on monetizing the Ask Aunt Susan site into a whole lifestyle brand. Jonathan also becomes paranoid about being exposed by the site's obsessive followers. One waitress (Robyn Scott), in particular, even threatens blackmail.
Though Bockley's play keeps audiences wrapped up in the improbable rise of Aunt Susan and concerned about the foundation cracks that threaten to topple the online site, some might find the conscience-free characters and their money-grubbing motivations off-putting. I personally would have liked Bockley and Stage to linger more on Aunt Susan's pained and conflicted doubts rather than speeding through the rise-and-fall plot mechanics of the company.
But otherwise, "Ask Aunt Susan" works well as a play that speaks to our lives today -- both virtually and in reality. Director Henry Wishcamper keeps things moving at an appropriately clipped pace, and he draws secure and funny performances from his strong cast.
Reflecting society's shortened attention span, set designer Kevin Depinet has created an intriguing set of fragmentary deconstructing pieces augmented by a series of video monitors expertly illustrated with text and images by projection designer Mike Tutaj. The bits-and-bobs aural landscape of sound designer Richard Woodbury is also a wonder, encompassing everything from computer static crackles to the slithery mush of a pile of maggots.
Seeing how sausage gets made is an unsettling sight, and Bockley does a masterful job of peeling back the ugly underside behind a voracious viral Internet hit in "Ask Aunt Susan." He also adroitly holds up a mirror to the audience by asking whether they see themselves or loved ones similarly caught up in perpetuating the marketing machine of an online fad. So while "Ask Aunt Susan" does a fine job of entertaining, it also goes one step further.