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
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.
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