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Internet advice zooms out of control in "Ask Aunt Susan" at Goodman Theatre

Aunt Susan (Alex Stage) and Steve (Marc Grapey)
Aunt Susan (Alex Stage) and Steve (Marc Grapey)
Goodman Theatre

"Ask Aunt Susan"

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In this world of social media and online relationships, there is hardly anyone who wouldn’t understand or relate in part to playwright Seth Bockley’s “Ask Aunt Susan.”

Aunt Susan (Alex Stage) has a nightmare from a bad meal as cast members float through his Chicago hotel room
Goodman Theatre

Premiering at Goodman Theatre’s Owen venue now through June 22, the play is a satirical take on how the internet can control someone’s life. In this case, Aunt Susan, a male on-line advice columnist played by Alex Stage, becomes addicted to answering his/her thousands of followers.

In a strange example because Stage’s persona is supposed to be a sensitive young man paying off college loans, he gets girlfriend Betty (Meghan Reardon) to say she loves him just so he can tell her he doesn’t love her. He says he loves “others” but he doesn’t explain that they are the needy women who go to the Aunt Susan website.

This addictive theme is just the obvious thread and is projected by a brilliant set design of flashing internet messages.

However, by the time the show, a short, 90-minute sketch is over, another theme emerges of master puppeteers pulling the strings. They are Steve (Marc Grapey), supposedly the boss, and wife Lydia (Jennie Moreau). Together they are an amoral couple who enjoy manipulating people and internet business. Steve, with the help of Stage’s earlier, unnamed internet role, had scammed Yelp by faking negative reviews in order to get commercial victims to buy good reviews.

Bockley’s premise, inspired by Nathanael West’s 1933 “Miss Lonelyhearts” novella, brings an updated twist to internet relationships and addiction. The problem with the current production, a world premier, is that the Aunt Susan character isn’t tightly enough defined and comes across as weak and "wishy-washy."

Parents and young adults know how tough it is to pay off college loans. Because that problem is mentioned only in passing as a reason to commit fraud the question of victim or easily-led recent graduate remains.

And as Aunt Susan, Stage wavers between projecting sensitivity and naivety about internet marketing and revealing take-charge, insensitive characteristics. All the other actors in the show look and feel comfortable in their roles. Stage doesn’t. His trick of speaking slowly and trying to earnestly emphasis thoughts doesn’t help.

What does remain constant are the fun, back-to-reality roles of diner servers. Chicago and Denver waitresses played by Robyn Scott delightfully ground the intangible, fantastical internet world with coffee pots and order pads.

In all, the play is an entertaining look on how a small, internet business can go viral in more ways than expected.

Details: “Ask Aunt Susan” runs now through June 22 at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago, IL 60601. For tickets and more information visit Goodman Theatre or call 312-443-3800.