Corrections or additions?

This review by Simon Salzman was prepared for the February 18,

2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

New York Review: `Aunt Dan’

It was in 1985 that I first saw the Public Theater production of

Wallace Shawn’s "Aunt Dan & Lemon." The original cast included the

author with Linda Hunt, as Aunt Dan, and Kathryn Pogson, as Lemon. At

the time I was bowled over by the play’s uncommonly uncompromising

appraisal of the human condition. This appraisal is vigorously

designed and consigned to incite argument and healthy anger among its


Because we don’t get many such plays, it is good to report that the

New Group’s enhanced production has been even more effectively cast

with Lili Taylor, as Lemon, and Kristen Johnston, as Aunt Dan. Unlike

the doubling of roles originally done by seven actors, this production

uses the full complement of 12 actors, each bringing a nightmarish

reality to their respective roles. Besides writing plays and appearing

in supporting acting roles, Shawn is most famously known for his

collaboration with director Andre Gregory, with whom he wrote and

co-starred in the 1981 film "My Dinner with Andre," an intoxicating

metaphysical discourse.

In "Aunt Dan and Lemon," Shawn, a world class polemicist and

dramatist, calmly but grippingly explains and dramatizes how seemingly

cultured, outwardly compassionate people are able to contemplate,

commit, and then justify the most barbaric, anti-social acts. The

play, told mostly in flashback and revealing an emotionally and

socially crippled young girl’s politically-influenced childhood, still

speaks eloquently to us today.

We are given much food for thought regarding the extent to which we

should allow our government to justify immoral acts against others so

that we may continue to live in the style to which we have become

accustomed. It opens with a gripping monologue, spoken directly to us

("Hello, dear audience, dear good people who have taken yourselves out

for a special treat, a night at the theater") given by Leonora, known

as Lemon, for short, now a recluse in ill health.

"Hello, little children. How sweet you are, how innocent. If everyone

were just like you, perhaps the world would be nice again, perhaps we

all would be happy again. Dear people, come inside into my little flat

and I’ll tell you all about my life," she continues as the stage and

the atmosphere is set for this unsettling drama.

Lemon is an avid reader, particularly of history. She lectures

respectfully and solemnly on how the Nazis "managed to accomplish a

great deal of what they wanted to do." Lemon’s ideological view is

expressed thus: "A perfectly decent person can turn into a monster

perfectly easily. And there’s no reason why he would feel any

different. Because the difference between a perfectly decent person

and a monster is just a few thoughts."

Although passively self-contained within her impressionable,

questioning mind and eroding body, Lemon’s character is seen as molded

and nurtured primarily by the right-wing proselytizing of long-time

family friend Danielle, Aunt Dan, for short.

But the playwright doesn’t stop here. If the ethics of Lemon’s father

(Bill Sage), an anti-intellectual workaholic, are damaging to a

receptive adolescent’s psyche, then her mother’s (Melissa Errico)

sweetly non-argumentative nature is seen as equally destructive. In

fact, what we are getting is a no-rebuttal barrage of right-wing,

fascist, and Nazi points of view aimed at making us uncomfortable and

eager to retaliate, even as we begin to surrender to certain

philosophical truths. In his extraordinary play, Shawn indirectly

insists that we challenge the ideological, moral, and ethical

platforms we have built within ourselves. The device is quite

brilliant, and it works to disturb.

Taylor, whose many off-beat film ("I Shot Andy Warhol" and "Household

Saints") and TV roles ("The X Files" and "Six Feet Under") have made

her an untypical actor of the first rank, is simply haunting. Pale and

slender, she is scarily believable as the demurely receptive Lemon,

who listens with wonderment to Aunt Dan’s fanatical bedtime speeches

on the virtual sainthood of Henry Kissinger and his un-saintly sex

life, all entwined into her own arguably twisted defense of his reason

for bombing Vietnam.

As Aunt Dan, the tall and voluptuous Johnston, who is probably best

know for the TV sitcom "3rd Rock from the Sun" and on Broadway in the

revival of "The Women," gives an incriminatingly seductive performance

that becomes hypnotic as she invokes, during one of her bedtime

stories to Lemon, the lurid sexual acts and skewed morality of a

former girl friend, a high priced hooker and murderess. Scott Elliot’s

menacingly and carefully paced direction helps to make this the most

bone-chilling and mind-blowing play of the season. HHH

– Simon Saltzman

Aunt Dan and Lemon, Harold Clurman Theater, 410 West 42nd Street, New

York. Tele-Charge at 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200. To March 27.

Previous Story Next Story

Corrections or additions?

This page is published by

— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.

Facebook Comments