Where: Goodman Theatre, Owen Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
When: through June 22
By ANNE SPISELMAN
The world premiere of Seth Bockley’s “Ask Aunt Susan” at Goodman Theatre gets off to a promising start but soon spirals into an incomprehensible, nonsensical mess. Loosely based on Nathanael West’s 1933 novella, “Miss Lonelyhearts,” the satirical play updates the story of a male newspaper reporter who assumes the role of a female advice columnist by adapting it for the digital age.
In the opening scene, arguably the evening’s funniest, we meet Jonathan (Alex Stage), though we don’t learn his name until later. A mild-mannered nerdy type, he’s sitting in a booth at a somewhat seedy cafe where, he explains, he’s spent his days writing negative reviews — cold soup, a maggot in the meal, etc. — for Yelp as part of a scheme devised by his boss Steve (Marc Grapey) to coerce restaurateurs into upgrading to “Yelp premium” to get favorable coverage. But the fraud has been exposed, and now he doesn’t know what to do to repay his student loans. Then Steve suggests that he answer e-mails from the lonely, forlorn and otherwise anguished, most of them women. And so “Ask Aunt Susan” is born, though more than dispensing advice, he draws on the ethos of his hippy-dippy girlfriend Betty (Meghan Reardon) to dish out unconditional love and support.
So far, so good. The website is wildly successful, and the setup allows Bockley to explore by-now-familiar themes, such as how the more connected we are online, the less we relate to the real people in our lives. In this case, Johnathan becomes obsessed with answering the cries of help to Aunt Susan, and his relationship with Betty suffers. Set designer Kevin Depinet’s deconstructive set incorporates everything from a tavern tin ceiling to lots of monitors of various sizes, and Mike Tutaj’s projections provide the visual components of our preoccupation with technology.
The human need to congregate and believe is also on the playwright’s mind, as Aunt Susan’s legion of followers form groups of purple-shirted devotees, as we discover in a diner scene in Denver, home of the new headquarters. But even more important is the penchant of the venal and greedy to take advantage of any opportunity, an escalating destructive process. As Aunt Susan becomes an Internet phenomenon, sleazy Steve and his invidious wife, Lydia (Jennie Moreau), turn it into a corporate entity and criminally exploit it for all the money they can make, ensnaring and double-crossing even Betty.
By this time, alas, the original satire has given way to some sort of demented psychological thriller. For no explicable reason, Jonathan becomes paranoid, delusional and convinced that Denver waitress Jill Ingle (Robyn Scott) — he sees Judas Iscariot in her initials — is blackmailing him, threatening to reveal that Aunt Susan is a man if he doesn’t give her $30,000. Why he should care that much if his identity is known is anybody’s guess, as are a lot of details, such as why he insists Betty be the person hired as the “face” of Aunt Susan, and even before that, why he continues working for Steve after being burned by the Yelp scam, much less why he ends up in bed with Lydia after they both insist it’s not going to happen.
The hopeful finale of “Ask Aunt Susan” isn’t any more convincing than what comes before, but I must admit that hardly mattered to me because I didn’t care about any of the characters. There was some hope for Stage’s Jonathan at the beginning, because of his self-deprecating sense of humor, but his blandness soon became boring, as did his obliviousness to Betty’s feelings, even if Reardon deliberately played her as ditzy, at least until her ambition and avariciousness kicked in, another inexplicable twist.
Grapey’s Steve is so abrasive and repulsive, it’s hard to see why anyone would work for him in the first place, but I guess you can chalk that up to this being a satire, and Moreau’s Lydia is a good match. Scott has the rather thankless task of playing the two waitresses and an oddly tell-all bartender, and acquits herself well.
I’m not sure what can be done to fix “Ask Aunt Susan,” but the place to begin might be with a plot that doesn’t go off the deep end and characters who behave believably.