Goodman Theatre. By Seth Bockley. Directed by Henry Wishcamper. With Alex Stage, Marc Grapey, Meghan Reardon, Robyn Scott, Jennie Moreau. Running time: 1hr 30mins; no intermission.
Theater review by Kris Vire
In Nathanael West's bleakly comic 1933 novel Miss Lonelyhearts, the title character is a male newspaper writer whose work penning an advice column under a female persona sends him spiraling down a dark path. Seth Bockley's new play at the Goodman takes Lonelyhearts as inspiration but updates it for the information age.
Bockley's protagonist, played with appeal by Alex Stage, is a modern online hustler. He tells us he previously worked for "Yelp Premium," an extortion-racket arm of the online-listings site that squeezed money out of business owners by flooding their pages with negative reviews that Yelp's sales team then offered to suppress for a fee. (Though the business model Stage's character recounts is officially fictional, Yelp has faced similar allegations in the past.)
When that business dries up following a class-action lawsuit, our narrator is contacted by Steve (Marc Grapey), the shady supervisor to whom he reported at Yelp Premium, with a new venture: answering missives from online lonelyhearts as "Ask Aunt Susan." Amoral Steve and his cynical, sensual wife, Lydia (Jennie Moreau), seek to spin Aunt Susan into an empire of profiting off of users' suffering. But Aunt Susan himself, like West's Miss Lonelyhearts, gets all too wrapped up in his mission to comfort the afflicted.
Bockley's dark comedy speaks rather adroitly to some of the vagaries of identity in our current climate, with allusions to everything from NSA wiretapping to data skimming at Target. And speaking from my own fraught relationship with the online economy, certain passages about Aunt Susan's inability to disconnect from work due to the incessant demand for more content hit home.
Of course such of-the-moment vérité also invites extra scrutiny, leaving one to wonder, for instance, why Stage keeps referring to himself as a coder when for the most part that's not at all what he does. Those with a toe in the real world of online business Bockley cheekily imitates here may find themselves running Aunt Susan's business model through feasibility studies in their heads, while even the most luddite audience members will wonder at the title character's willingness to associate with obvious creeps like Steve and Lydia.
But in the end, Ask Aunt Susan is a fable about identity in a hyperconnected age, not meant to be taken too literally or to spark any hashtag campaigns. Ultimately it's a mostly winning work, with Grapey's gleefully over-the-top asshole doing much of the heavy comic lifting, along with Robyn Scott as a trio of service-industry types; Meghan Reardon also makes a charming Goodman debut as Aunt Susan's blissed-out actress girlfriend.
Moreau's character remains a bit ill-defined, and Bockley hasn't yet established why his title character would be enlisted into this business in the first place, but Henry Wishcamper's deft staging, amid Kevin Depinet's attractive and appropriately skewed scenic design, keeps things at just enough of a wink to get by.