The premise of “Ask Aunt Susan” — that technology and desire gone wrong are dangerous — might be an interesting one. Unfortunately, Seth Bockley’s play at the Goodman Theatre doesn’t give audiences any deeper understanding of that.
In the play Jonathan is an IT slacker who can’t really connect with people and drifts through his career. Then his former boss Steve convinces him to join his new online company and become online advice giver “Aunt Susan,” a kindly old woman who soothes and supports the people who write to her for help. The fake Aunt Susan takes off, and Steve and his wife Lydia build a successful company around “Aunt Susan’s” popularity with Jonathan’s help. Jonathan’s ex-girlfriend Betty, the only one he apparently ever loved, becomes the spokeswoman for “Aunt Susan” and begins to believe she really is the fake columnist. Soon swindles and cons happen, and relationships are torn, all in the name of technology and greed.
The spare stage served as different settings with a change of furniture and the addition of several props. But apart from the diner and a bedroom, it wasn’t always clear where the characters were supposed to be. Huge TV screens and speakers set on a pole upstage blared out messages and titles, in hopes that audience members would figure out the meaning of each scene. While they were visually interesting, better writing would have been a more successful method of conveying the play’s message.
Much of the dialogue is confusing; there are references to things I’m not familiar with, and there were lines that I found funny such as when Steve says, “JK” (Txt for “just kidding”) that older audience members didn’t get. It was like the playwright wasn’t sure who his audience was.
Then there was the lack of appealing characters. Jonathan tries to understand himself and others, and that is interesting, but he enjoys deceiving his readers — which doesn’t make him very sympathetic. Steve, his boss, is a twisted, greedy manipulator. His wife, Lydia, obviously understands this, but stays with Steve anyway out of her own greed. Betty starts out good and loving, but ends up selfish and evil. Even the bartender/waitress characters are slightly off. It’s hard to like a play when none of the characters are likeable.
Most frustrating was the play’s ending — Betty’s final speech felt like the playwright was in a rush to finish it, and just came up with what he thought were a few clever lines that would have fit better earlier. They made little sense, and seemed to leave many in the audience unsure if it was really the end: there was a long pause of silence before the applause started.
While the writing was weak, the actors delivered believable performances. Their characters might not have been drawn very well, but they all seemed to find elements they could play up to give their roles some life.
The lighting helped set an appropriately edgy, sinister tone during much of the play. The sound was also good, and helped get across the “people are sad, technology is harsh, lying is bad, relationships are complicated and weird, greed is harsh” messages even if it was too loud for me most of the performance (and I was sitting in the last row of the theater). The costumes suited each character, even boosting the cartoon quality of Steve and Betty at the end.
Lighting, costumes and sound aren’t going to save a play that doesn’t really make sense though, and I thought “Ask Aunt Susan” had a long way to go before it reaches the “making sense” category. I know it was a play in development, and Bockley is still working on it, but I don’t like spending more than an hour being confused about what I’m supposed to be watching.