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Aunt Dan and Lemon

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Given that the lifespan of controversial plays is usually quite short, it's a delight to find that Aunt Dan and Lemon still has the power to incite, enrage, and provoke. Wallace Shawn's complex play, which had its New York premiere in 1985 and is now receiving a luscious revival from The New Group at the Clurman Theatre, remains rich enough to reward the brave souls willing to stick with it until the end.

There were only two walkouts at the performance I attended, and they occurred long before the lengthy and controversial monologue that ends the show. In the span of just a few minutes, the virtually plotless play transforms from a thick-walled character study into a full-frontal assault on one's beliefs about the very nature of right and wrong. The speech forces the audience to examine the influence and control we have on others, to examine the power of words when we say them intending to have a certain effect and when we don't.

But that monologue is only the culmination of the show's events, demonstrating the depth of progression of one character's attitudes. The speaker is Lemon (Lili Taylor), a sickly woman in her early adulthood, who leads a journey through a series of flashbacks demonstrating the formative years of her life. Particularly influential was her mother's longtime friend Aunt Dan (Kristen Johnston), an admirer of Kissinger and an outspoken conservative always willing to speak up in a political argument.

The couple that walked out of the performance I saw were apparently fed up with a heated argument between Dan (short for Danielle) and Lemon's liberal mother (played by Melissa Errico) about the nature of humanity in the face of war. One can only wonder what they would have thought had they made it to the scene in which that argument, centering on the difference between doing something yourself and having another do it for you, was enacted onstage.

That sequence, one of Dan's many stories, finds her one-time friend Mindy (Brooke Sunny Moriber) graphically seducing and then disposing of one man at the behest of another. Yet this story is pivotal in the evolution of Lemon's beliefs, which Dan herself helped form during a pivotal summer visit when Lemon was 11 years old. The connection between Lemon and Dan is established as being both parental and possibly romantic, though both are incapable (or unwilling) of giving over to their feelings for the other, as a late stirring scene in the play all too clearly suggests.

Director Scott Elliott has taken the many confrontational elements of Shawn's play and crafted a handsome but unforgiving production from them. Derek McLane's red-swathed set and Jason Lyon's frequently harsh lighting suggest something of a solitary, hellish underworld so appropriate for Lemon's psychological makeup, and many of the actors project a dreamlike, larger-than-life quality just right for the memory characters they portray. The most notable exceptions are Moriber, Errico, and Bill Sage as Lemon's "caged animal" of a father, all of whom drift into focus for but a brief period of time, but most stingingly alter the play's reality before disappearing again.

But this play depends on its title characters, and Johnston and Taylor never disappoint. They have a fine, cool rapport that firmly establishes their bond while highlighting the emotional riff so necessary for the story. Even when the characters aren't at the forefront of the action, they're making major contributions: Lemon may gaze lovingly at Dan or the tales she's spinning, or Dan's joy at presenting a world to Lemon she has no other hope of knowing may be infectious. These are two fine, very giving performances that keep the play strongly anchored.

Yet it's the final bitter realization of Aunt Dan and Lemon that, for all of Dan's thoughtfulness and caring, her work was not satisfactorily completed. Lemon's views remained half-formed, able to coalesce around simple or ill-considered ideas of her own construction (most significantly involving approval for the single-minded acts of the Nazis) without the moral grounding to understand exactly what the difference between Kissinger and Hitler is, or even the capacity to work out if there is a difference. If Aunt Dan had continued to influence Lemon, what would have happened?

Shawn leaves the audience burning with this question, and many others that can't help but linger long after the play itself has concluded. In questioning both the defenders and the protestors of vital issues, Shawn is issuing a powerful challenge to anyone who feels certain in his or her convictions; as such, Aunt Dan and Lemon is likely to remain relevant and disputatious for the foreseeable future.

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Aunt Dan and Lemon
Through January 31
Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
Running Time: 1 hour, 50 minutes with no intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge