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Ask Aunt Susan – Goodman Theatre
Once upon a time there were advice columns in most of the major newspapers. Women experiencing problems with their love lives or family situations wrote anonymously to journalists like Ann Landers or Dear Abby for their candid advice. In 1933 author Nathanael West wrote Miss Lonelyhearts, a dark novel about an advice columnist, set in New York City during the Depression. The unnamed writer becomes depressed from the burden of reading and answering so many letters from a population of troubled individuals. He loses himself in his job, assuming a Christ complex in attempting to save the world by solving everyone else’s problems but his own.
Seth Bockley, the Goodman’s playwright-in-residence, was inspired by West’s novel to write his own version of alienation for the 21st century. With the public’s addiction to the internet a curious paradox develops: while connecting us globally with other people and an infinite number of informational sources it also isolates us. This play about an online columnist who becomes too involved with his readers’ predicaments while trying to handle his own problems raises many interesting questions without ever solving any of them.
Alex Stage plays a 20-something computer savvy young man with mountains of bills to pay. He accepts a job offer to become Aunt Susan, the Miss Lonelyhearts of this story, from Steve, a smarmy, wheeler-dealer played by the always impressive Marc Grapey. Betty (delightful Goodman newcomer, Meghan Reardon) is the young man’s vacuous fiancee, a struggling Chicago actress who is ultimately cast to be the face of Aunt Susan. Steve’s wife and business partner Lydia, as played by Jennie Moreau, is a hard-driven, take-no-prisoners man eater who enjoys her power and freedom. Together Steve and Lydia take Aunt Susan’s column to new heights, but always with money-making trumping any of its counseling benefits.
Henry Wishcamper keeps his production clipping right along. He’s ably assisted by Kevin Depinet, Keith Parham, Richard Woodbury and Mike Tutaj with their excellent scenic, lighting, sound and projection designs that enhance the storytelling and keep the production looking and sounding state-of-the-art. Wishcamper’s production is polished and as high tech as its subject matter.
The same can be said of his cast. While Alex Stage makes a likable young Aunt Susan, Wishcamper has smartly kept his leading man low key and introspective in contrast to Mr. Grapey and Ms. Moreau’s high energy slickness. Ms. Reardon’s portrayal of Betty is authentic and sweet, although one may question her decision to join the ranks of an internet corporation that’s in contrast to all she stands for. The real standout in Mr. Wishcamper’s production, however, is the versatile Robyn Scott playing three very different roles. Ms. Scott is absolutely believable as edgy young bartender Cleo, as a feisty older Chicago waitress and as a Denver hash-slinger named Jill. This latter character figures more prominently in the plot than first expected and she becomes a welcome, recurring treat.
At best, Bockley’s play is a catalyst for conversation, bringing to light the notion that the internet can be a double-edged sword. While this isn’t exactly a new idea, as presented in Henry Wishcamper’s fast-paced production that’s devoid of frills and frippery, the message hits home. And although the play doesn’t have a real conclusion but simply fizzles to an end, it does present a lot of information and raises all kinds of questions. Its terrific cast and in-your-face staging, filled with humor and unexpected plot twists, will provoke many a water cooler conversation.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented May 24-June 22 at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago.
Tickets are available at the Goodman box office, by calling 312-443-3800 or by going to www.GoodmanTheatre.org/AuntSusan.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.