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Seeking Digital Solace In 'Ask Aunt Susan'

By Melody Udell in Arts & Entertainment on Jun 11, 2014 4:20PM

The Goodman's 'Ask Aunt Susan.'

Aunt Susan isn’t who you think she is. An indefatigable website queen, she masquerades as an Internet self-help guru for women longing to be consoled of their life’s woes in an anonymous online forum. But Aunt Susan is actually a twenty-something guy with a smattering of HTML knowledge, some dubious writing chops and zero experience counseling others (or even himself). And in Seth Bockley’s promising yet slightly underdeveloped new play at the Goodman, Aunt Susan is a tool for satirizing the ills of the digital age.

Deep behind layers of code and a few dummy firewalls, Aunt Susan is actually just an unnamed guy (Alex Stage), a former copywriter for a fictional service called Yelp Premium, which extorted clients by posting anonymous bad reviews about their businesses then charging them to clean up the PR mess. But litigation threats came calling. Soon he was out of a job, with a $30 Chili’s gift card as severance and a couple of looming student loan bills. So when he’s approached by Steve (Marc Grapey), his slimy former boss at Yelp, about a new gig writing online advice columns for a women’s website, he’s eager to put his skills to work. A little too eager. It soon becomes clear that Steve and his equally smarmy wife, Lydia (Jennie Moreau), are running another shady Internet scheme. And as our would-be protagonist becomes increasingly obsessed with his online persona as Aunt Susan, he finds himself—willingly, it seems—dangerously entangled with the website’s murky underbelly.

With such a topical premise, Ask Aunt Susan delivers on its ability to poke fun—insidiously, even—at a the cult-like culture of online communities and social media. But its problem is the severe lack of likeable, well-developed characters. Stage is appropriately detached and sardonic (“I watched the sunrise break over a Panera”), which is spot-on for his character but does little to inspire sympathy. He maintains the hoodied stereotype of a Silicon Valley millennial, and his personal relationships, including the one with his rainbows-and-sunshine girlfriend Betty (Meghan Reardon) are in constant need of maintenance. Steve and Lydia are equally as aloof, with strange side dealings and unknown resources somehow funding venture after venture. Even Betty, the play’s only glimpse at a somewhat likeable character, shows her petty side as she’s roped into standing in as the “face” of Aunt Susan.

But thanks to a strong script with quick-witted jabs at everything from crowd-sourcing to Hot Doug’s, Bockley knows how to hit chords that strike at self-realization. Kevin Depinet’s set, layered with TV screens that serve as a hip yet redundant storytelling device—with help from Richard Woodbury’s sound design—make it clear that Ask Aunt Susan parodies the worst of online culture—from ubiquitous digital business dealings to lonely, bullying forum trawlers. And for that insight alone, Ask Aunt Susan is worth a “like.”

The show runs through Sunday, June 22 at the Goodman, 170 N. Dearborn, 312-443-3800 or online.