Theater has a knack for diving into hush-hush subjects that can often leave audiences either in high spirits from new-found enlightenment, or uncomfortable and a little sad about the world. “Ask Aunt Susan” does a fine job of leaving its audience –mainly the technologically savvy — a little squirmy in their seats.
“Ask Aunt Susan” deals with the grimy and often ruthless inner-workings of large Internet corporations, and how the Internet’s anonymity gives people both a false sense of security and the ability to adopt new identities. The story is narrated by Jonathan (Andy Carey), a 20-something web developer who works for the same corporation that had previous legal trouble for being sketchy and sucking money out of other corporations. Jonathan works for Steve, who embodies everything morally wrong and dangerous about bosses. Steve and his wife Lydia are the masterminds behind a brand-new website, “Ask Aunt Susan.” Jonathan masquerades as the helpful online persona “Aunt Susan,” and the forum quickly evolves into a multi-million dollar corporation. We’re then taken up – and down – the corporate ladder as Jonathan becomes more and more obsessed with his virtual persona. Questions about relationships and loyalty litter this script, and offer plenty of food for thought about technology’s role in our society.
I went into Aunt Susan with only one thought in my mind: “This is experimental theatre, be ready for anything.” This production was one of three in Goodman’s Newstages and Amplified series, so my expectations were neither high nor low. However, Kevin Depinet’s set design drastically raised the bar. A massive center-stage pole supported life-sized furniture, which resembled the curving entrance to a black hole or a vortex. Scattered about the steel gray-and-white set were large TV screens, which projected super-titles throughout the show and gave it a graphic-novel feel. Very old-school detective story, the set, lights and sound did a marvelous job of taking this show to the next level. It was the most enjoyable aspect of the entire production for me, and I found myself just as excited for scene changes as I was for the scenes themselves.
Along with a quirky and rousing scene design, “Ask Aunt Susan’s” cast really handled what they were given well. Nothing was overdone, and if it was it was in good taste. There’s a very cute moment where Jill the waitress breaks down and cries because she can’t handle conflict; it’s so ridiculous you laugh. Everyone knows a “Jill”, which makes her extreme reaction believable as well as enjoyable. Unfortunately, I couldn’t look past the striking resemblance (voice, body and mannerisms) between Andy Carey and popular rock artist Ben Folds, and it distracted me from the overall performance. Jennie Moreau brings a distinctly slinky class to her performance as Lydia, while Justine Turner offers both spice and comic relief in her three roles as Cleo/Waitress/Jill. Steve Pickering turns in an unsettling, memorable performance as the slimy character Steve, despite a role this is, frankly, poorly written. That is real star power.
Because alas, the writing here isn’t as polished as it should be. Yes, this is experimental theater, but I found myself spacing out many times simply because I didn’t understand a word of what was going on. It was almost as if you needed a little Internet code dictionary in the program notes to get everything out of Jonathan’s terminology.
“Ask Aunt Susan” didn’t wow me as much as I’d hoped. I tried so hard to follow what was going on, to feel empathy for characters and really enjoy the show — but I never got to really engage in everything that was going on. When the show ended and I was able to hear playwright Seth Bockley talk about the work, it was unfortunate how many times I thought to myself “Oh, oh! So that’s what happened!” You’re almost never going to have the playwright there to explain everything you just saw. A great show should be able to tell its story – with all its nuances and subtexts — through actors, set, lights, sounds, etc. Unfortunately, “Ask Aunt Susan” just didn’t do that. I left confused, and very wishy-washy about the show. But there is hope: I am eager to see if any changes are made and if those problems will be fixed before this show becomes more solidified as a script.