The time could hardly be riper for a new look at “Aunt Dan and Lemon,” Wallace Shawn’s disquieting play about the shaping — or misshaping — of private and public morality. With the country divided over the justice of the United States’ motives and methods in Iraq, Shawn’s 1985 play has a fresh currency: We listen with quickened attention to the questions it slyly raises about the unseen links between the personal ethics of citizens and the policies of their leaders.
There are many other odd byways in this peculiar and challenging play, but not all of them are fully illuminated by Scott Elliott’s flashy-looking but uneven production. Nevertheless, the intriguing casting of Kristen Johnston, as the fascist-feminist Aunt Dan, and Lili Taylor, as her ailing acolyte Lemon, should serve to introduce curious new audiences to Shawn’s distinctive, disturbing little allegory.
Shawn, the actor and writer most recently known for “The Designated Mourner,” is possibly not a natural playwright. His best plays are not dramas, really, but philosophical memoirs in monologue form. But in the right hands they can be transformed into spellbinding theater. Elliott’s production begins promisingly, with Taylor onstage as the audience enters, looking child-like and exuding an eerie sense of inwardness that hints at Lemon’s insular worldview. Derek McLane’s set suggests a cozy parlor-cum-bedroom, but the silk drapery on the walls, the color of dried blood, gives the space a faintly hellish tinge, too.
The play focuses on Lemon’s memories of her Aunt Dan, a friend of her parents who came to play a prominent — and pernicious — role in the cultivation of this reclusive girl’s mind. Just how destructive Aunt Dan’s influence came to be is hinted at in Lemon’s chipper opening monologue, in which she refers with an unsettling matter-of-factness to the manner in which the Nazis stage-managed the march to the gas chambers at Treblinka. “Today of course the Nazis are considered dunces because they lost the war,” she says casually, “but it has to be said that they managed to accomplish a lot of what they wanted to do. They were certainly successful against the Jews.”
That disturbing chord, the friendly logic that paves the way for a perversion of morality, is what Shawn sets out to explore. Lemon’s education mostly came at the feet of this charismatic older woman, an American teaching at Cambridge who befriended her parents and spent many an evening regaling her young admirer with tales of the freewheeling social atmosphere of swinging London. By day the young girl listened as Dan chastised her mother (Melissa Errico) for questioning American policies in the Vietnam war. Just as Lemon was in thrall to Dan, Dan was in thrall to her hero, Henry Kissinger; the play is, among other things, a perceptive critique of the corrupting potential of personal glamour.
Johnston, the statuesque actress best known for her stint on “Third Rock From the Sun,” certainly possesses a natural physical allure. She could scarcely be a more distinct physical type from the original Aunt Dan, the diminutive Linda Hunt. With Johnson in the role, it’s easy to see how a sickly child could fall under the spell of a woman whose personal presence radiates a healthy power. Johnston’s emphatic performance could use a bit more shading, however: She never quite suggests the intellectual seductiveness to match her naturally forceful presence.
And the oblique structure of Shawn’s play poses its own problems. The playwright refrains from making facile connections between Aunt Dan’s two preoccupations, her easy rationalizing of repressive and possibly violent political action in the name of some greater good, and her fascination with the transgressions of a friend named Mindy (Brooke Sunny Moriber), who takes her personal prerogatives to their own violent extremes. But without intimations of how these phenomena interrelate, the long digressions depicting the sexual escapades of Dan’s friends seem like, well, long digressions. Shawn seems to be suggesting that indulging a natural taste for vicarious decadence desensitizes us to more sinister kinds of institutional violence, but it requires an intellectual leap to make the connection.
To be honest, the play’s provocative ideas are more cogently put forth in Shawn’s beautifully written appendix to the published edition than they are in the play itself. (As he would go on to prove in subsequent works, Shawn is more naturally at ease with the straight monologue form.) And Elliott is unable to shape the wayward narrative into the single, hallucinatory whole it must be for the play to really get under our skin.
The snazzy swinging-’60s costumes by Eric Becker are amusing, but they tend to turn the actors wearing them into kitsch caricatures, and these minor players, onstage throughout the proceedings, can be a distracting presence. There are some fine performances in the supporting cast, notably Errico’s delicately wounded Mother, but these scenes retain an awkward, underrealized feeling.
It’s only when Lemon again takes center stage, in the play’s final moments, that the chilling power of Shawn’s vision comes into focus. Taylor’s eminently friendly, manifestly harmless Lemon calmly guides us, with irrefutable logic, from the killing of cockroaches to genocide. In a country where the death penalty remains popular, who could argue with her contention that “no country has ever considered the taking of life an unpardonable crime or even a major tragedy”? And as ever more luridly violent news stories, from JonBenet Ramsey to Laci Peterson, dominate the news and even primetime TV, how to refute her assertion that “it’s enjoyable to learn about killing that is done by other people”?
It’s only when Lemon talks, with mild bewilderment, about the “cult” of compassion that we see the real monster peeking out from behind the ponytailed girl in the disarmingly mundane “Les Miz” T-shirt, and are left to wonder where recognition of human brutality ends and brutality itself begins.