A new production of "Aunt Dan and Lemon" takes some of the original spirit out of Wallace Shawn's idea-laden script.
By LESLIE (HOBAN) BLAKE
(Originally reviewed at the Harold Clurman theater.)
Although I never saw the original 1985 production a co-production of London's Royal Court where it was first presented down at the Public Theater, I've been a fan of the Wally Shawn's "Aunt Dan and Lemon" in script form for years. Under the direction of Max Stafford-Clark, it had a cast of seven, five of them (including Shawn himself) doubling and tripling ten roles, while two actors played the eponymous title characters. The best-known cast member was the redoubtable Linda Hunt as Aunt Dan.
The current New Group production, directed by artistic director Scott Elliot, has a full component of 12 actors (without Shawn this time), including such high-profilers as indie movie princess and Emmy winner Lili Taylor ("Casa de Los Babys," "Six Feet Under"), TV fave Kristen Johnson ("3rd Rock from the Sun"), French film star Isaach De Bankole ("Chocolat"), Broadway's Melissa Errico ("Amour") and even Carlos Leon, best known as the father of Madonna's little girl, Lourdes.
|AUNT DAN AND LEMON|
|Company: The New Group.|
Written by: Wallace Shawn.
Directed by: Scott Elliott.
Cast: Kristen Johnston, Lili Taylor, Marcia Stephanie Blake, Liam Craig, Isaach De Bankolé, Melissa Errico, Carlos Leon, Emily Cass McDonnell, Brooke Sunny Moriber, Maulik Pancholy, Stephen Park, Bill Sage.
Sound design by: Ken Travis.
Set design by: Derek McLane.
Costumes by: Eric Becker.
Lighting Design by: Jason Lyons.
Related links: Official site
410 West 42nd St.
Opens: Jan. 13, 2004
Mon.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sat. 2 p.m.
ADaL was the first of Shawn's controversial "plays of paranoia," dealing with his philosophic and political theories. "The Designated Mourner" (four talking heads sitting around a dinner table shades of "Omnium Gatherum") bemoans the murder of art and artists in a South American country, and "The Fever" a long monologue justifies the existence of the class system. (In order to enjoy their wealth, the rich need the poor to work for and be abused by them).
Like its dramatic descendants, ADaL allowed Shawn to posit several controversial and ironic political theories via multiple monologues, in the hopes of discomforting his audiences. This time the theories originate with Aunt Dan, but are filtered through the adoring narrative memory of her pale and sickly niece, Lemon. These include a justification of the Nazis "they are considered dunces, because they lost the war, but ... they certainly were successful against the Jews" delivered within the play's first ten minutes.|
Orphaned at an early age, Lemon (played by Taylor, about whom more later) has remained in thrall to the memory of her Aunt Dan, a not-so-crypto 1960s lesbian, well played by the imposingly blowsy and seductive Johnson. With neither radio nor TV, Lemon doesn't follow the news. Instead she constantly relives those moments when she first heard her beloved Dan's various sophistic pronouncements.
Dan idolized Henry Kissinger with a fawning schoolgirl crush, explaining, "He works for the government. ... How dare they attack him for killing peasants?" Lemon regurgitates this cant as though she were telling the audience the best story ever, culminating in the final "message": "There's something inside us that likes to kill."
So we're smack-dab in the middle of a diatribe on the banality of evil, which during the last 19 years has become not only more evil and more banal, but more immediate. Even Shawn couldn't have predicted either 9/11 or America starting a pre-emptive war in the Middle East. As a big fan of Shawn's writing, Taylor's acting and Elliot's direction, it saddens me to report that two out of three disappoint in the current revival of AdaL. Shawn's writing is even more prescient today, but this production doesn't trust that we get it.
To point up Dan's "enjoyment of killing" theory, the audience gets a ringside seat to a snuffing. Elliot makes sure to place the well-endowed Leon front, center and very naked, before killing him as Dan and Lemon watch avidly from the sidelines, along with the audience. In fact, Elliot's full cast of twelve no doubling here, even though most of these characters are mere ideas given flesh also watches from the sidelines, where they sit (most uncomfortably) throughout a series of modishly dressed swinging '60s recollections.
Among the cast, Leon does manage to find an insouciant comic charm in a character written as a walking Latin Lover joke. But Errico and Bill Sage, a veteran of several Hal Hartley films ("Simple Men," "Flirt"), are wasted in the comparatively minor roles of Lemon's young mum and dad, as is the normally charismatic African film actor, Isaach De Bankolé ("Ghost Dog," "Night on Earth") as one of Dan's multi-culti chums. Least of all is Brooke Sunny Moriber's Mindy a Heidi Fleiss-ish creation who'll do anything or anyone for a dollar.
| ||Shawn's writing is even more prescient today, but this production doesn't trust that we get it.|
So why did this play of ideas which moved me so on paper leave me bored at the Harold Clurman? The fault lies in director Elliot's vision. His Lemon is an eager child-woman, effectively leeching any meaning from her portentous statements, leaving mere prattle. This also taints the relationship of the voluptuous Dan and the anemic Lemon with a Michael Jackson-like pedophilia they're always in bed together, watching Dan's memories morph into various violent or pornographic scenes. And Elliot seems helI-bent on illuminating and underlining every nuance of Shawn's words, although it would seem that a play of ideas might require a bit more finesse.
Finally, I've adored Taylor in such indie films as "I Shot Andy Warhol," "Girls Town" and "Household Saints" and on stage in "The Dead Eye Boy" and "Aven'U Boys." Playing a New York toughie or a man-hating poet, she has no equal. While she definitely does well by the waif portion of the role, Lemon is a young English woman and Ms. Taylor is currently perpetrating the most God-awful excuse for an English accent I've had the misfortune to hear this year!
|JANUARY 13, 2004|
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