Playwright: Seth Bockley. At: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St. Tickets: 312-443-3800; www.GoodmanTheatre.org/AuntSusan; $10-$40. Runs through: June 22
The literary plot device of gaming the gamer has remained evergreen since storytelling began, encompassing The Odyssey, Dangerous Liaisons, The Sting and Trading Places among diverse examples. Ask Aunt Susan fits the genre.
Its hero is a not-so-reformed Internet scammer who becomes non-existent Internet advice guru Aunt Susan ( Alex Stage ), never realizing his chain is being jerked. The tricky part is that one must come to care about the gamer gamed and have sympathy for him, and that's missing here. When our twenty-something hero realizes in the closing moments that he's been played, and reaches out for sympathy to ex-girlfriend Betty ( Meghan Reardon ), we really don't care if she reaches back.
Part of the reason is that he's lived very well while being playedflying first class and putting money in the bank, and nothing is taken away from him. There's no downside, no loss, no cruciblejust a very abrupt end in which the uber-gamer is revealed. There's hardly time for the hero to react with shock, anger or anything except, perhaps, a tiny sense of his isolation.
Author Seth Bockley, a multifaceted theater artist, acknowledges that Ask Aunt Susan takes its inspiration from Nathaneal West's richly sardonic 1933 classic, Miss Lonelyhearts, melded with a 21st-century Internet overlay. In West's novel, a cynical newspaper reporter answers advice-to-the-lovelorn lettersa joke to his editoronly to become deeply distraught over the genuine Depression-era distress of the letter-writers. Ask Aunt Susan starts similarly and the 70-minute play is off to a very fast start, with Bockley's acerbic tone equal to that of West's.
But Bockley then mostly parts ways with Miss Lonelyhearts, which veers towards tragedy. Bockley keeps things much lighter and concentrates on the cynical business of building the Aunt Susan brand as manipulated by the hero's boss ( Mark Grapey ) and his wife ( Jennie Moreau ). As the play becomes more detailed in this respect, it becomes less ha-ha funny ( although its acerbic tone remains ) and less involving because the hero not only doesn't suffer, but he doesn't grow. Bockley sacrifices character for story, which he ends in a flash with the uber-gamer seeming to have had no motive.
Ask Aunt Susan has style, tone and brisk pace as written by Bockley and staged by Henry Wishcamper, but it needs to grow deeper, more dangerous and probably longer to fulfill its potential and honor its source. The cast is first-rate. Grapey is hilariously vulgar ( he's become expert at such roles ), Moreau is cool and alluring, Reardon is bimbo personified, and Stage is blandly charming. In several small roles, Robyn Scott steals her scenes. Scenic designer Kevin Depinet cleverly skews things at angles, which he enjoys doing at the Goodman.