Not long ago, TV was said to be rotting our brains, shrinking our attention spans, blunting our emotions, and alienating us from one another, even as it promised to connect us to the wide world. Today, of course, the very same concerns surround the Internet and its ubiquitous delivery methods—laptops, tablets, and, especially, mobile phones (television, meanwhile, has entered a much-ballyhooed "golden age").
In previous generations, similar fears were expressed about the seductive dangers of the novel, motion pictures, or whatever happened to be the predominant cultural medium of the day. Does the fact that the receptacle of these anxieties has shifted mean the fears were unfounded? Or does it illustrate the human capacity for reaching new highs when it comes to reaching new lows?
A satirist would be inclined to take the latter view. After all, satire is a genre dedicated to saying, in essence, "What is the world coming to?" In Ask Aunt Susan, now onstage at Goodman Theatre under the uncharacteristically listless direction of Henry Wishcamper, playwright Seth Bockley attempts to raise that age-old lament for the Internet age. He tells a tale of loneliness and greed, pitting lost souls seeking community online against hucksters and charlatans peddling platitudes for profit.
Bockley's previous work includes stage adaptations of fiction by Roberto Bolaño and George Saunders; as a director, he oversaw Collaboraction's lively staging of Jason Grote's 1001, a postmodern remix of The Arabian Nights. Bockley has again found inspiration in literature for Ask Aunt Susan, the plot of which resembles—early on, at least—Nathanael West's remarkable 1933 novel, Miss Lonelyhearts.
West's protagonist, whose real name is never given, is a young newspaperman in New York. He writes a column answering forlorn letters signed "Broken-hearted, Sick-of-it-all, Desperate, Disillusioned-with-tubercular-husband," etc. The other guys at the paper, following the lead of a Mephistophelian editor named Shrike, find it all hilarious. But constantly receiving the raw pain of others ("what I want to no is what is the whole stinking business for," one correspondent writes) begins to affect Miss Lonelyhearts, who identifies more and more with Jesus Christ. He stays pretty unappealing in real life, though—full of lies and something of a shit in his dealings with women.
A portrait of an unsympathetic man who nevertheless has a great deal of sympathy for his fellow man (which sort of sounds like a description of Curb Your Enthusiasm, now that I think of it), West's book is bold, imaginative, and propelled by a kind of unstoppable comic force. All of those things are missing from Bockley and Wishcamper's wan and ultimately baffling adaptation.
Updating the story to the more-or-less present, Bockley replaces Miss Lonelyhearts with Aunt Susan, the nom de Web of a twentysomething man (Alex Stage) who takes a job as an online advice columnist. Actually, Aunt Susan doesn't dispense advice so much as act as a "beacon of love," assuring the despondent that they're understood and not alone. The site becomes an enormous hit, thanks in large part to the shameless promotion of it by its chief backers, a cynical entrepreneur named Steve (Marc Grapey, who seems to be the only member of the cast having any fun) and his assertive wife, Lydia (Jennie Moreau).
Bockley drops most of the Christ stuff found in West's novel and only allows brief glimpses of the e-mails addressed to Aunt Susan—though representing the common folk may be the reason Robyn Scott is given the thankless task of playing a series of wacky waitresses who otherwise have little to do with the story. Consequently, we're given no sense of what drives the hero to become as immersed in playing Aunt Susan as he eventually does, besides maybe a workaholic's obsession with getting through his inbox. Stage plays him as a bland, nice-guy everyman most of the time, providing few clues as to why he gets carried away or why he continually jerks around his angelically dull girlfriend, Betty (Meghan Reardon).
The script isn't helped much by Wishcamper's staging, which suffers from colorless performances and a serious lack of get-up-and-go. The pace only picks up in the latter half of the show's 85-minute running time, when Bockley abruptly abandons West and decides he'll do a psychological thriller instead. Lydia and Steve take over Aunt Susan's self-help empire, while the fictional guru's creator—for reasons I never understood—becomes a paranoid mess convinced that one of Scott's wacky waitresses is blackmailing him with the threat of revealing to the world that Aunt Susan is, in fact, an uncle.
The resolution involves a betrayal, opens the door to a second chance with Betty, and doesn't, so far as I can tell, make a lick of sense. As a satire, the play has no bite; as a thriller, it offers no thrills.