Earlier this week I finally had the opportunity to see a play that I have long been anticipating, Ask Aunt Susan, written by Seth Bockley and directed by Henry Wishcamper, at the Goodman Theatre in Downtown Chicago. The play, which is based upon a 1933 Nathanael West novel, Miss Lonelyhearts, centers around a young twenty-something (Alex Stage), who was previously employed by Yelp Premium.
Shortly after the company — which was ultimately just a way for Steve (Marc Grapey), the unscrupulous man behind the company, to use Yelp to extort money from restaurants — goes bust, following a lawsuit stemming from a tragedy that could be blamed on — or, at the very least, traced back to — the service, he is approached by Steve who has a new proposal for him.
Steve wants to start a new online advice site he calls Ask Aunt Susan, and, unbeknownst to those who would send in their questions, he wants this young man to be the “Aunt Susan” behind the service. While “Aunt Susan” may initially have his qualms about the ethics of the proposal and of (once again) getting mixed up with someone so unethical and immoral himself, he ultimately acquiesces, agreeing to play the part.
In short order, the site is a success, which is great in terms of profits, but not so great for “Aunt Susan” who quickly finds himself overwhelmed, receiving e-mails by the hundreds asking for his — or, should I say, “her” — help. The almost overnight success of the service quickly begins taking a toll on his personal life. His girlfriend, Betty (Meghan Reardon), doesn’t want him to be involved in yet another moneymaking scheme and wants him to disconnect. She feels technology has come between them and is negatively impacting their relationship, an assertion that is only backed up when Betty and he are at a diner and he cannot bear to tear himself away from his electronic device for more than a few moments at a time. (He even states, pretty much outright, that he regards his not having logged onto his e-mail for eight hours as not having logged on for an eternity.)
Though he initially promises to give technology up cold turkey, he is quickly sucked back in, and, it could be said, ends up choosing technology over his own girlfriend — something that, it should be said, is no surprise, given how his feelings for Betty seem to vacillate so wildly from one moment to the next. One minute he claims she is important to him and that their relationship is the most important thing, and the next he almost recoils at the mere mention of marriage.
From Lydia (Jennie Moreau) and Steve’s perspective, the only thing that ever seems to matter is growth, because growth means profit. As the site’s popularity increases by leaps and bounds, the model itself changes. Different levels of access to Ask Aunt Susan are established and paywalls go up. Rather than having one “Aunt Susan,” a network of “Aunt Susans” is established, each with their own area of expertise, which would determine who would respond to which problem. Team leaders were to oversee this vast network of Aunt Susans located all across the country, with the original “Aunt Susan” serving primarily as a sort of “guru.”
Immoral people that they are, at no time do the ethics or morals of the whole set up — like, say, the fact that they are messing with real people with real problems, real feelings and real lives — enter the equation. In short order “Aunt Susan” decides that the masses will not be pacified until they actually get to meet Aunt Susan herself. He comes up with the idea of putting a face to the name, which leads to an “Aunt Susan” casting call, during which “Aunt Susan” pushes for his ex to be the face of Ask Aunt Susan. Though initially opposed to the whole thing — even attempting to dissuade “Aunt Susan” from remaining involved — she quickly lets the fame and (perceived) power go to her head and goes rogue. On top of all of this, just as Aunt Susan’s life seems to be imploding — both personally and professionally — he is convinced that Jill (Robyn Scott), the waitress that he and Steve had met at a diner in Denver is behind the blackmail he has been receiving, that she knows his true identity, and ultimately seeks to unmask him as the real “Aunt Susan,” unseating him unless her demands are met.
On the whole, I found Ask Aunt Susan to be a very well-acted, smart and timely — not to mention very witty — play that deftly takes on the issues surrounding the anonymity of the Internet, the unscrupulous individuals that can lurk behind fake identities, engaging in nefarious activity, not to mention how technology can come between people, undermining their own humanity, sense of ethics and responsibility toward their fellow human beings.
Ask Aunt Susan runs through June 22, 2014 at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St. in Chicago. Tickets may be purchased at the box office, online or by phone at 312-443-3800. As always, it is recommended that you consult the theatre’s website to verify performance days and times. For additional information regarding this production or any associated special events, please visit the Goodman Theatre website.
Production Photos: Liz Lauren
Poster: Courtesy of Goodman Theatre