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A CurtainUp Review
Aunt Dan and Lemon
The difference between a perfectly decent person and a monster is just a few thoughts.
---Wallace Shawn, in a 1985 essay about Aunt Dan and Lemon.

. . .no society has ever considered the taking of life an unpardonable crime or even, really, a major tragedy. It's something that's done when it has to be done, and it's as simple as that.
--- Lemon, whose rationale for accepting, and, in fact, admiring monstrous behavior thoughts implanted into her impressionable young mind by her charismatic Aunt Dan.
Kristen Johnston as Aunt Dan and  Lilli Taylor as Lemon
Kristen Johnston as Aunt Dan and Lilli Taylor as Lemon (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Wallace Shawn's best known play, Aunt Dan and Lemon, is an exquisitely painful horror story and the blackest of black comedies. The challenge it poses about the all too easy co-existence of decency and immorality by a civilized society has, alas, lost none of its relevance in the almost twenty years since it first discomfited audiences at the Public Theater.

Typical of the New Group's reputation for edgy productions, Scott Elliott's revival has considerably energized the long monologues and debate-like dialogue around which this play is structured. The setting is plush and the sexual content explicit. But his chief asset is to have the luminous Lili Taylor on hand to play the frail, gentle monster known as Lemon (for Leonora). She is already on stage as audiences take their seat. Her face is a deceptive map of benevolence. Her "costume" consists of a loose Les Miz t-shirt, its image matching the waif-like persona. Her soft-spoken, gently reasoned delivery of the two long and shocking monologues that frame her story make the words she speaks sink in slowly but like a blow from a heavy hammer. Every movement and expression personifies the isolation and fragility of this young woman and her undiminished adoration of Aunt Dan (short for Daniella) .

The special relationship between Lemon and the outspoken aunt (the kinship courtesy of Dan's friendship with Lemon's parents) became imbued with romantic intensity during the Lemon's pre-adolescence. Their special bond was cemented by the older woman's inappropriately shared confidences which totally blurred the line between morality and immorality in her young acolyte.

Naturally, Aunt Dan also calls for a dynamic actress to project the sort of charisma that would enthrall an overly sensitive, sickly child. Unlike the original against type casting of the 4'9" Linda Hunt, Mr. Elliott has cast the more goddess-like, voluptuous Kristen Johnston. Her Aunt Dan exudes sensuality, excitement and conviction.

Johnston not only fits the role physically, but manages the lengthy chunks of dialogue without sounding as if she should be standing at a debating podium and, most importantly, with the requisite mordant humor. This is especially evident in her impassioned defense of Henry Kissinger's leadership decisions vis-a-vis the North Vietnam bombings as well as his very active social life. "I don't care if he's vain or boastful. I don't care if he goes out with beautiful girls or likes to ride around on a yacht with millionaires and sheiks. . .Maybe the fact that he enjoys life inspires all his efforts to preserve life, to do what he does every day to make our lives possible."

Comic as Dan's argument may be it makes a chilling case for a government's purpose being to take whatever murderous measures it must to protect our standard of living and enable us to hold onto our sense of being democratic and compassionate. It certainly requires no great stretch of the imagination to hear Aunt Dan pooh-poohing concers about lives lost to achieve our ends in Iraq.

A series of less speech-driven scenes fill in the background of how Aunt Dan and Lemon's father, both Americans, and her English mother became close friends at Oxford. These scenes also animate the recollections of Dan's student days (before she became an Oxford Don and Lemon's father a pressured London businessman). These short scenes are staged with cinematic flair, with Jason Lyons' lighting moving the various actors out of the shadowy recesses of Derek McLane's lush paisley and Persian rug covered set.

Bill Sage is disappointing as the uptight father. His one major outburst about the tough survival of the fittest world of his job as an executive at an auto parts company should be tinged with Shawnian humor; lacking that you don't mind his exiting the stage never to be seen again until the curtain call. (Wallace Shawn created much more nuance for this role, and managed to play two other parts as well -- Freddie and Jasper now played by now played by Liam Craig and Stephen Park).

Melissa Errico looks lovely as the somewhat saintly mother who can no more cope with Lemon's eating disorder (her repulsion towards meat probably tied to the bloody business involved in bringing it to the dinner table) than she can counter the more forceful Dan's arguments that people like them can only be nice " because our governments are not nice." Unlike Bill Sage, she is required to remain on stage much longer, mostly sitting around in pained silence.

Of the other friends from Dan's student days who periodically pop into the spotlight, mostly sprawled across a paisley covered double bed, Brooke Sunny Moriber stands out as Mindy. She's beyond terrible as the anything-for-money girl who demonstrates the extremes to which Dan's theories can lead. Carlos Leon also does good work as Raimondo, the macho male who falls victim to Mindy's action -- which in turn lead to Lemon's even more extreme admiration for the Nazis.

The squirmy feeling one is left with after Lemon's concluding monologue poses something of a dilemma. You want to applaud Taylor and Johnston and the rest of the cast -- yet you almost feel as if by applauding you will be proving Aunt Dan's argument about the sort of sit-in-the-garden liberals who keep their hands clean by letting their "leaders" do the dirty work required to maintain the status quo. The unresolved ending and this sense of discomfort are no doubt intentional, Mr. Shawn's hope now as in 1985, that the smiling Lemon and her dear Aunt Dan will stir us to a fuller understanding of how easily we delude ourselves to live with fiendishness.

Aunt Dan and Lemon
Written by Wallace Shawn
Directed by Scott Elliott
Cast: Starring Kristen Johnston as Aunt Dan and Lili Taylor as Lemon; also Isaach De Bankolé (Andy), Marsh Stephanie Blake (Flora), Liam Craig (Freddy), Melissa Errico (Mother), Carlos Leon (Raimondo), Emily Cass McDonnell (June), Brooks Sunny Moriber (Mindy)Maulik Pancholy (Marty), Stephen Park (Jasper) Bill Sage (Father).
Set Design: Derek McLane
Costume Design: Eric Becker
Lighting Design: Jason Lyons
Sound Design: Ken Travis
Dialect Coach: Stephen Gabis
Running time: 1 hour and 50 minutes, without an intermission
The New Group at The Clurman Theatre, Theatre Row complex on 42nd St. 212/239-6200

12/08/03-1/31/04; opening 12/18/03.--extended to 3/27/04--with move to Acorn Theater in same complex on 1/13/04
Mon-Saturday @ 8pm, Saturday matinee @2pm
Tickets: $50
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on December 13th press performance

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