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STAGE REVIEW : The Ideas Outpoint the Play in Shawn’s ‘Aunt Dan and Lemon’

Times Theater Critic

Like “A Walk in the Woods” (see Stage Wire, Page 3), Wallace Shawn’s “Aunt Dan and Lemon” at South Coast Repertory is a play of ideas. But with a difference.

By definition, the point of view most forcefully propounded in such plays will be the author’s. It’s good playwriting to include the other side of the case. But the idea is to prove the author’s side.

“Aunt Dan” works just the other way. The snake has the best lines. This has got Shawn into a certain amount of hot water since the play opened in New York in ’85. For instance, he has had to explain that unlike the anorexic Lemon (Anni Long at South Coast, a very healthy Lemon), he doesn’t find the Nazis refreshingly unhypocritical in dealing with those who were upsetting “their way of life.”

Nor does Shawn admire Henry Kissinger nearly as much as does Lemon’s Aunt Dan (Nan Martin, in red wig.) But as a playwright, Shawn has allowed Aunt Dan and Lemon to make their arguments, with only a token refutation from Lemon’s mother (Mary Ann McGarry.)

This leaves it up to the listener to refute what they have to say, or to agree with it, or to squirm. Since audiences don’t much like to squirm, “Aunt Dan” has not been a hit anywhere, and isn’t likely to be at South Coast.

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It remains a play that makes you think, or rather a play that shows how you don’t think. Take Lemon’s argument that “compassion” is something that she has felt for fictional characters, but never in real life.

Quite true, and so what? The reason we don’t exterminate people who disagree with us isn’t because they arouse our compassion, but because we recognize that they have the same right to life as we do. “Do unto others” has nothing to do with sentimentality.

Yet, for just a minute, Lemon almost convinces us that she’s exposed those non-Nazis in the crowd as hypocritical wimps. “Aunt Dan and Lemon” is about how badly we listen, and it would be best presented, I’m beginning to think, as a platform piece, with the key passages played back until we see the flaws.

As a play . . . I’m beginning to wonder. It worked in New York, with that insidious elf Linda Hunt as Aunt Dan. It did not work at all at Taper, Too. Martin Benson’s South Coast production comes closer to the mark, but the evening still doesn’t come together as a whole.

There are the monologues about power, about self-interest, about hypocrisy. Martin delivers hers crisply, with an undertone of eccentric humor, like Miss Jean Brodie on a roll. Long delivers hers like a slightly zonked Alice in Wonderland. Each is fine.

The connection with the sleazy adventures of Aunt Dan’s London pals, however, is not clear. In theory, yes--this is the Realpolitik of the headlines applied to party girls and Mafia hit men. But the seductiveness of it--what Aunt Dan finds sexy about it--doesn’t come across.

It looks like an attempt to enliven a dry play. If “Aunt Dan’s” point is to implicate the audience, these scenes are all too easy to walk away from, and even to laugh at. We should be fascinated with Aunt Dan’s friend, Mindy. Eva Wilder makes her a bit of a bore.

If there’s a point to that, it doesn’t come across. It’s also hard to keep a straight face in regard to Martin’s get-up, which makes her look less like Jean Brodie than like some Batman villain. Maybe, in the end, “Aunt Dan and Lemon” is a radio play.

Performances are Tuesdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7:30 p.m., with Saturday-Sunday matinees at 2:30 p.m. Tickets $18-$25. 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Closes April 7. (714) 957-4033.

‘AUNT DAN AND LEMON’

Wallace Shawn’s play, at South Coast Repertory. Director Martin Benson. Settings Cliff Faulkner. Costumes Susan Denison Geller. Lighting Tom Ruzika. Sound Serge Ossorguine. Production manager Ted Carlsson. Stage manager Bonnie Lorenger. With Anni Long, Mary Anne McGarry, Richard Doyle, Nan Martin, Eva Wilder, J. Steven Markus, Armando Molina.


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