New Stages Amplified presents unfinished, though intriguing work with ‘Ask Aunt Susan’ – By Emma Coleman

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

As a fan of the venetian-blind-themed lighting and overdramatic acting of femme fatales who plague classic film noirs of the 1940s and ’50s, I was immediately intrigued by the description that labels “Ask Aunt Susan” as a “mash-up of film noir, crime capers, and the world wide web.” Though this play by Chicago based playwright Seth Bockley does seem to lack a genre, this does not necessarily prevent the production from being successful but rather exemplifies the recurring themes of mystery and ambiguity that are so prevalent in this work.

Centered around the life of a young and often confused advice blogger (played by Andy Carey), “Ask Aunt Susan” explores the concept of the “Dear Abby” column in the Internet age. This blogger responds to the posts of despondent women with concern and an opening of “Although we’ve never met, I still care about you” and thus gains popularity and respect amongst the Internet community of middle-aged housewives. But as his advice column grows and listeners start to demand a face to the Aunt Susan empire, his concern that someone will discover the truth drives him into a world of paranoia, blackmail and intense dream sequences.

Having a setting of a non-physical universe like the Internet proves an interesting challenge for the designers of this production. Set designer Kevin Depinet handles this adeptly by providing the actors with a minimalist foreground and a large column of typical household items such as a bed, chairs and tables all painted white, interspersed with screens that would give titles to the different scenes like chapters in a book (e.g. “Aunt Susan and the Denver Omelet”). This surrealist take on the ambiguity of the Internet, paired with lighting designer Jesse Klug’s use of venetian blinds and spotlights on single characters as they break the fourth wall, help draw the viewer into the world of Aunt Susan in a way that would have been impossible had the set and lighting merely presented the story in a straight-forward manner.

To fill this surreal world that, at times, leaves the stage rather empty, it is necessary for the actors to fill the space with their presence. Unfortunately, many of the characters are unlikable. Although echoing the theme of anonymity on the Internet, the actor’s shallow and disagreeable characters make it difficult to empathize with any of them. The bleeding heart girlfriend, the money hungry businessman, the paranoid blogger–they are all successfully portrayed, but disconnected from the audience- but perhaps this is what director Joanie Schultz wishes to convey. It certainly would emphasize Bockley’s idea that the Internet creates meaningless connections that, rather than bringing us together, are actually drawing the world apart.

As someone born into the internet age, I find “Ask Aunt Susan” both intriguing and amusing. The satirical way in which Bockley approaches modern communication often hits home with my own life and gently pokes fun without becoming a bitter rant on the state of the world today. Through appeals to both the younger and older generations, Bockley has successfully created a script that seems at once nostalgic and progressive and a production recommended for anyone teenaged or older.