Oh, what a tangled Web we weave. The Internet is a treacherous, tricky place. Safe behind the anonymity of a keyboard, anybody can be anybody. With little more than sixth-grade vocabulary and basic hunt-and-peck typing skills, an unemployed, insecure, unremarkable millennial can become a modern-day superhero.
In the case of playwright Seth Bockley's savvy new satire Ask Aunt Susan, currently playing at the Goodman Theatre, the titular aunt is actually a depressive 20something man. The unnamed antihero at the heart of Bockley's narrative is sent spiraling into an existential crisis when his gig as an online advice columnist turns him — or rather his online persona — into a cultural phenomenon that's a combo of Oprah and Jesus. Fantasy fulfillment always sounds great, as does the notion of having a powerful secret identity. But think through the practicalities of acquiring super powers and hero status, they come with a steep psychic price. The almighty Internet is a portal to addiction and obsession as well as fame and fortune.
Directed by Henry Wishcamper and premiering in the Goodman's smaller Owen Theatre, Ask Aunt Susan is a cautionary tale about the perils of maintaining a double life and an entertaining commentary on the Internet's power to morph needy, lonely, vulnerable people into powerful, nationwide communities.
Ask Aunt Susan begins on an audacious note, with Bockley taking aim at Yelp and hitting a bull's-eye. Our antihero, narrator, and eventual Aunt Susan (Alex Stage) has just been laid off by "Yelp Premium," a (presumably fictional) service that has more in common with extortion than any sort of premium service. As the young man at the center of Ask Aunt Susan balefully explains, his job at YP involved posting fake, damaging reviews of real restaurants (think maggots and lousy service). Then he'd approach the devastated businesses and sell them premium packages guaranteed to expunge the damning critiques. Bockley shows admirable fearlessness by taking on a corporation with deep pockets and top-tier attorneys at its disposal, and that spirit of nervy provocation enriches Ask Aunt Susan throughout.
Aunt Susan comes into being after Yelp Premium implodes in an onslaught of lawsuits. For Ask Aunt Susan's titular sib sister, unemployment doesn't last long. Chief YP, shakedown suit Steve (a marvelously droll and slimy Marc Grapey), enlists his former "reviewer" to pen an advice column. After the newly minted Aunt Susan fires up his laptop and gets down to the business of empathy, it's not long until Susan becomes the spiritual leader of an army of lonely hearts.
Bockley says a lot about the dizzying power of the Internet to create community as well as about the ludicrously lucrative self-help movement that preys on the pain of the unhappy. In Ask Aunt Susan, he says it with wit, intelligence, and acerbic comedy. But for all its cynicism, Bockley's plot is deeply rooted in compassion: As the letters pour in, Aunt Susan becomes unable to sleep. He obsesses over every torment in every e-mail. As money from Aunt Susan, merch and ad sales piles up, Susan reaps power and glory and Steve giddily lines his pockets. With Steve's shark-like wife Lydia on board to market "premium" memberships to Aunt Susan's site, the young man behind Susan's paywall begins to disintegrate under an avalanche of sorrows.
That disintegration doesn't always ring true. Stage is Everyman to a fault, a wholly forgettable millennial whom you wouldn't look twice at in a crowd. Director Wishcamper doesn't get the most impactful performance from him. Moreover, Susan's all-immersing obsession over the problems of unhappy millions feels inauthentic. The dialogue does a fine job charting Susan's devolution into monomania. But the emotions embedded in that dialogue sometimes seem forced in Stage's delivery. Ask Aunt Susan also strains credibility at times — the speed with which Susan goes from unknown to cultural phenomenon defies complete believability. The final scene fizzles where it should flash; it's convenient more than satisfying.
The supporting cast is a strong one. Grapey is priceless as a shady entrepreneur with the ethics of a loaded gun. As Aunt Susan's tech-averse girlfriend Betty, Meghan Reardon delivers off-kilter comedy packaged around a goofy, appealing core of kindness and yearning. A young woman with a wide-eyed command of a host of vacuous new-age clichés, Betty is on her own mission to bring sunshine and rainbows to the downtrodden. Jennie Moreau is a praying mantis of a femme fatale as Lydia, Steve's morally unencumbered wife and business partner.
But it's Robyn Scott who comes close to stealing the show, playing a trio of low-rent waitresses each with her own unique take on the cult of Susan. As a tattooed bartender in a depressing pleather miniskirt, Scott cuts a figure that's instantly recognizable as the sort of weary wage slave whose daily highlight is a smoke break. Scott also stands out as Jill, a preternaturally cheerful pancake-house server who beams with pride as a regional team leader in the (all volunteer) Aunt Susan organization. Scott also transforms herself into a dumpy, cynical, short-spoken diner waitress with a gimlet-eyed disdain for her customers and, it seems, the world at large.
Flaws and all, Ask Aunt Susan is a promising new work. The issues it broaches are intriguing, as is the drama they're packaged in. If you had superhero powers, would you have the strength — and the compartmentalization skills — to sustain your sanity? What is the alchemy that turns disenfranchised individuals into powerful communities? And what, precisely, is the cost of maintaining a dual identity? Bockley doesn't provide answers. But he nails the pertinent questions.