Ask Aunt Susan
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‘Ask Aunt Susan’ leaves a lot of questions
Goodman Theatre presents
Ask Aunt Susan
Review by Katy Walsh
To transition from Thanksgiving to December, my family’s tradition is to follow the turkey with a little “Christmas in Connecticut.” The 1940’s Barbara Stanwyck movie has a successful writer tantalizing the country with her gourmet recipes and picture perfect homelife. When a war hero needs a holiday treat, the publisher invites him to his staffer’s home. The soldier gets to dine with America’s favorite housewife. The magazine gets a heart-tugging story angle. So, what’s her problem? The writer doesn’t have a husband, baby or house in Connecticut… and she can’t cook. A writer trapped in her own creation, now that’s entertainment.
Goodman Theatre presents the final offering in the 2011 New Stages Amplified series, Ask Aunt Susan. New Stages Amplified provides opportunities for playwrights to mount a play in development. The learning experience allows the writer to gauge audience’s reaction and craft the piece accordingly. In Ask Aunt Susan, a former yelper turns advice blogger. The online counsel is a sidebar on a new website. The “Ask Aunt Susan” feature explodes into the internet’s version of “Dear Abby.” The sidebar is now the mainframe. “Ask Aunt Susan” merchandise and groupies canvass the globe. Everybody loves Aunt Susan! So, what’s her problem? She’s a dude! Ask Aunt Susan explores building an anonymous empire on the Internet.
I admit I walked into the play expecting a “Tootsie” inspired comedy. It’s not! It’s more modern age fantasy. Playwright Seth Bockley takes his writer in a different direction. The internet-based Aunt Susan implodes inside the writer’s head. As the advice site escalates in popularity, Aunt Susan plummets into an identity crisis. The unreality of the internet makes the writer’s offline life surreal. It’s an interesting premise that doesn’t connect for me. Bockley’s characters are unlikable. They are all surface opportunists. And maybe that’s Bockley’s point – but it keeps the audience from really connecting to his play. The dissatisfying ending pairs up the undesirables out of happenstance. No one really learns a lesson and turns their life around (including Aunt Susan himself, played by Andy Carey). Initially, I’m rooting for this social media geek. He responds to painful posts with loving hope. The idea that this bumbly guy, in over his head, just replies to despair with a simple I-care-about-you response is beautiful. That’s the profound story angle I’m looking for in this age of online relationships. Google me that! But instead, Bockley continues to surf the web for more content. The point gets lost in SEO output. And I just log out!
The title Ask Aunt Susan suggests lightly-frothed snappy dialogue, and secret identities. Seth, if you want to keep your fantasy deconstruction, I might suggest a name change. “Dear Abby” always sounded more fun than her twin sister counterpart “Ann Landers.” You need to Landers up! You could even drop the gender switch altogether. A play titled “Ask Steve Jobs” is riddled with phantasmagorical possibilities.