With that, Lemon demolishes the social construct that we call compassion, while the simply devastating Headly — eyes widening in the determination that she is right — similarly lays waste to the audience.
The soliloquies that bookend “Aunt Dan and Lemon” remain the ripest theatrical moments of Shawn’s play, which in fact bowed in London (at the Royal Court) in 1985 before traveling Off Broadway to the Public Theater. And as seen in 1999, they point an important way forward to a pair of Shawn plays that hadn’t yet been written when this one premiered: “The Fever” and “The Designated Mourner,” both of which are propelled by unreliable (and insidious) narrators of their own.
The sticking point with “Aunt Dan and Lemon” has always been the first name mentioned in the title, played initially by Linda Hunt and this time by Miranda Richardson. A brilliant American academic at Oxford, Aunt Dan (short for Danielle) is presented as the defining figure — intellectually and possibly even sexually — in the life of the young and impressionable Lemon, who has grown up in England the daughter of an American father (a droll Kerry Shale) and English mother (Janine Duvitski).
The problem is that the putative impact made by Aunt Dan never fully squares with the voluble but under-realized character offered up by Shawn. The playwright gives Aunt Dan an abiding obsession with Henry Kissinger as if that encapsulated the entire person; what’s missing is the crucial, defining charisma — however perverse — that would cast someone under its spell.
And so the acolyte Lemon becomes far more persuasive than her adored Aunt Dan , who for all her supposed influence seems scarcely dramatized.
That’s no fault of Richardson, an alumna of “The Designated Mourner” who is always commanding even when her American accent becomes a shade overemphatic. But a grisly subplot involving Aunt Dan’s louche English circle of friends retains at best a tangential relationship to a play that would seem to be lacking the defining scene where the amoral torch is passed from the one to the other. And though Shawn would no doubt (and rightly so) shy away from glib explanations of a twisted psyche, the dinner table scenes with Lemon and her parents raise more questions than they answer, rather as if all it took to create the Unabomber or any social misfit was occasional exposure to undercooked lamb.
The director, Tom Cairns, doesn’t always help matters, no matter how expressive lighting (by Wolfgang Gobbel and Michael Gunning) in which even the refrigerator of Lemon’s dreary digs exudes an infernal glow. Cairns and co-designer Robin Rawstorne’s set divides the Almeida stage, creating a screen on which Lemon’s filmed past can be projected. But the design also cuts off much of the action from one side of the house and fails to define the various time periods and locations of a play that sometimes echoes in theatrical terms its ambient Schoenberg music. (If ever a play called out for a turntable set, it’s this one.) John A. Leonard’s sound design is eerily exact down to the scurry of tiny insects, so it’s a particular shame that the set isn’t so much dislocating as irritating.
Still, the necessary disorientation returns every time Headly’s Lemon reasserts claims that — as in all Shawn’s work — threaten to expose the sham that we call civility. You may be appalled by the remarks that come out of Lemon’s mouth, but no one is likely soon to forget a speaker whose descent into madness could not be more mesmeric.