As a professional critic with a byline and, when I last checked, a salary, I'm all for shows that take down peer-reviewing sites. I have a vested interest therein.
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So when, in its first few minutes, the Goodman Theatre's new show, Seth Bockley's “Ask Aunt Susan,” goes after Yelp by setting up a juicy scenario wherein nefarious employees sit in restaurants all day writing terribly negative reviews of those eateries (cold soup, a maggot in a sandwich, harassment allegations, worse reviews even than this one) and then shake down the business for a “Yelp Premium” membership that would enable them to erase those reviews, it was like catnip to a Facebook kitty.
How impressive that Bockley does not take the usual tack and fictionalize the adversary, making it “Belp” or “Screech” or something. Nope, in “Aunt Susan” it's Yelp. There's the familiar moniker right on the video screen. Bravo to the gutsy Goodman lawyers for letting this one through — and thank God for the First Amendment and the parody defense.
But Yelp and its business practices are not the main satirical target of the night.
“Ask Aunt Susan” actually is a riff on Nathanael West's brilliant, caustic novella from 1933, “Miss Lonelyhearts,” wherein a depressed male newspaper columnist (yes, they still exist; yes, they still get depressed) comes up with a scheme in the form of an Ask Amy-like enterprise (for the record, there really is an Amy and she is nice). This fake agony aunt, to use the classic term, starts as a dark joke for the guy (unnamed by West) but ends up taking over her creator's life as he becomes obsessed with all his reader's problems, which arrive in his mailbox (remember those?) in great floods. It does not end well for Miss Lonelyhearts.
Bockley, an interesting thinker and talented satirist, is not the first writer to turn “Miss Lonelyhearts” into a play: Howard Teichmann put her on Broadway in 1957. For 12 performances. But there's nothing 1933 or 1957 about Bockley's Chicago-rooted script, which sticks what/who's now Aunt Susan (same idea) into a world peppered with references to Mark Zuckerberg and Chipotle, apps and Oprah, Google and The Cloud.
But, you know, you can give actors laptops and cellphones and all the hip dialogue in the world and yet the same old fundamentals still apply.
It is usually helpful when the protagonist has at least some vaguely likable qualities, especially in a show like this one where he is the audience's confidant. Aunt Susan (the Zuckerberg-like guy, played by the miscast, all-at-sea and wholly invulnerable Alex Stage, still does not have a name) is constantly talking to the audience. Here, he is so unpleasant and weaselly, you just want him to stop and let you go home. It is also helpful when that same protagonist wants something that might sustain the drama. Not here. He is little more than a cipher and the overly passive center of a show that has not even remotely decided what could or should drive its story.
“Ask Aunt Susan,” which was developed at the Goodman, is an interesting idea with promise, the odd good laugh and, for sure, a sense of the terrifying moment (see above). It was not remotely ready for full production. Not this one, anyway.
Bockley's Achilles' heel is a dangerous disregard for believability — exasperated, alas, by Henry Wishcamper's tentative and awkward production, which does not rein in that tendency. As I watched Wednesday night, there was not one character, nor one moment really, in which you could fully believe. No character acts like anybody would act in real life. This just would not happen, you find yourself constantly saying, as you're pulled out of the story. There are no cameras in the bedrooms of the Palmer House as there seem to be here.
Bartenders do not tell strangers about their recent abortion. When someone who feels uncomfortable calls for help, they do so like someone might actually hear them. Ginger ales on Spirit Airlines do not cost a fortune. When you are flying out of Chicago, you do not see Chicago Midway as one of the destinations on the screens.
That's just shoddy for a theater at this level. I could go on.
In this show, characters who have decided happily not to make love, then end up in bed together without ever offering any kind of explanation for the turnabout. At one point, Miss L gives his kinda girlfriend (played by Meghan Reardon) the brushoff by saying he loves his readers more. Fair enough: that's a smart inversion of the source. But Stage does not show us love of anything.
Is it unreasonable to hold Bockley, who is writing a dark and fanciful comedy, to such strictures?
Realistic people eat real noodles in the show, make reference to actual businesses and cultural matters, and opine on all kinds of real-life stuff. You can't have it all ways. Flights of fancy are fine, but Bockley always goes for the easy gag even if he pays with credibility. It's not worth it, and he's too smart to be so cheap. And Wishcamper needed to build some kind of consistent world, some place for us to grab hold. Due to the lack thereof, actors (even good ones like Robyn Scott, Jennie Moreau and Marc Grapey) either flail around or stay very much in their comfort zones.
Bockley has given the story a new ending — maybe a hopeful one, or at least it might be if it didn't seem that the characters involved did not like each other one bit and have little or nothing to say or feel. Weird, in a play about advice.
When: Through June 22
Where: The Goodman’s Owen Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
Tickets: $10-$40 (subject to change) at 312-443-3800 and goodmantheatre.orgCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun