Ask Aunt Susan – By Stephanie Greene

March 16, 2012 in Cindy Bandle Young Critics by Cindy-Bandle-Young-Critics

Ask Aunt Susan
By Seth Bockley
Goodman Theater, November 10th- November 20th
By Stephanie Greene

“Ask Aunt Susan” takes its viewers on a trip. And not just one; We see travels through time, and the characters’ minds. Most notably, we witness the main character lose his mind as he delves deeper and deeper into his virtual reality.

In the first scene we see Jonathan in a setting that recurs throughout the play: The 50s-style diner and Jonathan’s laptop underscore the play’s contrast of simple and complex — including Jonathan’s decision to become “Aunt Susan.” Aunt Susan is a virtual woman who responds to the public’s woes and heartbreaks via an online forum. She literally becomes the healer of the world, as well as a pop culture icon.

One might think that all this success would excite Jonathan; instead, it leads him to reevaluate his own existence. He believes he is nothing without Aunt Susan, that he cannot function in reality. He takes on the character as a genuine part of him.

His loss of self is a direct commentary on modern society and its dependence on technology.  This message was hard won, however, thanks to the often-confusing dialogue. I became so focused on Jonathan’s relationship with Aunt Susan that I lost track of the play’s greater meaning.

This play is a part of New Stages Amplified, which allows up-and-coming playwrights a chance to show their works-in-progress to Goodman’s audiences. But that does not make up for the frequent dialogue flubs. The set was well designed, but it seemed to call for quick, sharp movements by the actors that did not seem natural, or relatable. The stage’s focal point was a furniture-adorned pole, accented with what appeared to be replicas of the set below. The furniture looked like it was swirling in a vortex. I found myself wanting to take apart the centerpiece instead of watching the actors.

All in all, I think the idea behind “Ask Aunt Susan” was more interesting than the play itself. The idea that technology is “taking over” is completely relevant to today’s society, but I think the playwright tried to tackle too much. There were dramatic monologues between scenes that did not seem true to the quiet, sweet and somewhat subdued character of Jonathan;  they caused a disconnect between the viewer and the actor. I understand that these monologues were supposed to give the audience a glimpse into Jonathan’s mind, but in the end, their emotional swings left me confused. There could have been more attempts to weave the downward spiral of Jonathan into the regular dialogue to avoid so many plot breaks. Still, Bockley’s method laid out an intriguing path. I only wish it were one I saw more clearly.