Ask Aunt Susan – By Melissa Needlman

May 21, 2012 in Cindy Bandle Young Critics by Cindy-Bandle-Young-Critics

A Satirical Homage to Life and Business in the Internet Age by Seth Bockley
Sunday, November 13th at 7:30, New Stages Amplified at the Goodman Theatre

Writer Seth Bockley ominously sets “Ask Aunt Susan” in “Various places of America. The near future,” but the world he has created is purely his own, a mixture of both the fantastical and painfully familiar aspects of life lived with the Internet. The show’s seven characters each illustrate this interconnected world’s impurity, where businesspeople have no qualms about using strangers’ pain for tidy profit-making.

The show’s plot contains interlocking rings of deception. The smarmy Steve pays Jonathan to deceive readers as online female advice columnist “Aunt Susan.”Steve also proceeds to steal Jonathan’s girlfriend, Betty; his money and his sanity. Betty deceives the world by pretending to be the “original Aunt Susan” behind the advice column and deceives herself into believing the lie. Steve’s wife, Lydia, deceives him by openly cavorting with Jonathan and Steve deceives Lydia by having liaisons with a Goth bartender. Chaos ensues.

Multiple flat-screen television sets mounted on a pillar upstage added a unique spin to an otherwise spare set. Brief descriptions on the screens indicated scene changes and occasionally displayed floating fragments from letters to Aunt Susan. Combined with the web-page backgrounds, binary code projected on the wall from time to time and the white noise that purposefully drowned out the actors from time to time, the effect was powerful, yet never overwhelming. The lighting and sound design masterfully maintained audience consciousness of technology’s role in both the play and their lives.

The characters’ clothes were anything but subtle; Lydia’s furs and Goth girl Cleo’s incredibly thick boots slammed their personas in the audience’s face. Costume designer Rachel Anne Healy chose clothing for the show wisely, picking garments that functioned as character extensions.

The actors each brought certain strengths to an almost airtight ensemble. While Jonathan (played by Adam Carey, who shines as he attacks his role with reeling, dynamic vulnerability) carries the show forward, the rest of the cast has their individual moments that prevent the show from becoming solely about his character.

Steve Pickering especially grabbed attention on stage as he dived into his role as shrewd, depraved businessman Steve. In one of the show’s more confusing moments, he seduces Cleo in a grimy hole in the wall by waxing poetic about scripture, declaring her pure despite the revelation that her sexual background is nothing like that of the archetypal Virgin Mary. And as Steve carried Cleo offstage in a passionate embrace as the slack-jawed Jonathon watched, I could not process whether what I had just witnessed was trashy, twisted or holy.

The actors’ performances were believably natural, underscored with subtle exaggeration when necessary. Even Jonathan’s lapses into manic soliloquy are believable, illustrating his stress-fueled spiral into madness with frenzied motion and strained vocal chords. Justine Turner could’ve dialed her waitress back a little, though she still managed to make the character humorous, offbeat and unique.

The actors and director definitely interpreted the script to my satisfaction, which was no easy task, considering its fast pace and cerebral nature. Adam Belcuore’s casting was a revelation; he chose actors that manifested the script’s subtleties and brought out the individual “spark” in all of their characters.

The set comfortably balanced the play’s constant scene changes, allowing the audience to shift focus with ease. Other than an erroneous and especially chaotic dream sequence later in the show, none of the production’s aspects seemed to detract from the realism that tethered itself to believability.

I found the play’s abrupt ending frustrating and ambiguous, almost contradicting the rest of the performance. Despite that, Brittany Burch infused Betty’s closing monologue with a despairing luminosity.

“Ask Aunt Susan” isn’t for everyone. But this fresh, intelligent and engaging piece will keep the neurons firing long after the show ends.