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Kristen Johnson and Lili Taylor in Aunt Dan and Lemon
Crritic! The Structure of Aunt Dan and Lemon
(A Response to John Simon)

By Martin Harries

Aunt Dan and Lemon
By Wallace Shawn
Acorn Theatre
410 W. 42nd St.
Box office: (212) 239-6200


"The third scene has Mindy, a money-hungry call girl, taking home Raimondo, a Hispanic cop in playboy disguise, having oral and missionary sex, then elaborately tying him up and vengefully strangling and disposing of him in a plastic bag. The scene, though hardly convincing, has the virtue of being almost wordless, and thus a pleasant respite from the Shawn word-mongering. The thing ends with Lemon's five-page soliloquy in defense of the Nazis. If anyone can detect a connection between such sophomoric shock effects and justify six further irrelevant minor characters, he's a better man than this critic, and a more accomplished mystagogue than this author."

-- John Simon, New York magazine, January 19, 2004

To my knowledge no one has taken up the challenge that closes John Simon's vituperative review of the New Group's production of Wallace Shawn's Aunt Dan and Lemon. Perhaps this is because his invitation is barbed: only a mystagogue could be a better "man," so the critic who detects connections has, Simon implies, already surrendered to a theatrical mystery cult. ("Mystagogue" as slur! It could be on the list of curses passed back and forth by Didi and Gogo.)

I am not especially interested in any test of critical manliness. I fail, I pass, whatever. I remind Simon that a critic might not be a man at all. I am, however, determined to show that in his thrashing he has blindly identified a nexus crucial to understanding the disturbing structure of Aunt Dan. The very energy with which he disavows any connection, with its combination of machismo and pre-emptive condemnation, suggests the energy a certain repression requires. The play has a structure. How we respond to that structure is, as this energetic disavowal attests, a vexing question. To argue that it has no structure is to refuse to acknowledge those vexations at all.

For those who have long since lost patience with the drama section at New York magazine, let me summarize. Aunt Dan and Lemon, as Simon points out, is not rich in action: the scene in which Mindy (Brooke Sumner Moriber) strangles Raimondo (Carlos Leon) is one of the few that are not staged conversations. Simon is unable to detect a connection between this murder and the scenes of conversation and polemic. The conversations are largely about the necessity of violence, especially state violence as sponsored by Henry Kissinger; Mindy's strangling of Raimondo is the play's single instance of physical violence. So I can sharpen the question at hand: What is the connection between Mindy's murder and the state violence that is the play's constant topic of conversation?

Everyone with the evident exception of Simon knows that Aunt Dan is about seduction. Ben Brantley, for instance, begins his review of this production: "A very skilled, very scary act of seduction is taking place in a red velvet room on West 42nd Street." That seduction begins as the audience settles in to its chairs: Lemon (Lily Taylor), with a beguiling mixture of curiosity and nerves, checks her spectators out, as if counting them, slightly nodding sometimes as though approving of someone's choice of seat. In the course of the play, Lemon frequently addresses the audience directly in a brittle English accent surprising to hear from the mouth of this American actress. There is nothing covert about her persuasion, her seduction.

The plot's central seduction, however, is between Aunt Dan and Lemon. Aunt Dan (Kristen Johnston), an American teaching at Oxford but not, in fact, Lemon's aunt by blood, preaches a creed that asserts the necessity of state violence to preserve the comforts of life in the overdeveloped world:

Don't you understand that you and I are only able to be nice because our governments -- our governments are not nice? Why do you think we've set these things up? I mean, a state, policemen, politicians -- what's it all for? The point is so we don't all have to spend our lives in some ditch by the side of the road fighting like animals about every little thing. The whole purpose of government is to use force. So we don't have to.

Aunt Dan fails to persuade Lemon's mother (Melissa Errico), but Lemon takes comfort in Dan's stories. Away from Lemon's parents, Aunt Dan and Lemon continue their discussions in a small house in her family's garden that Lemon has made her own. Scott Elliott stages these scenes largely on the bed that dominates center stage, a fitting venue for their strange intimacy. By the play's end, Lemon has elaborated on Aunt Dan's arguments about necessary violence to the extent that she delivers that closing "soliloquy in defense of the Nazis." Aunt Dan, we learn, dies just as Lemon enters adulthood, but Dan's seduction, at once political and erotic, has succeeded, and Lemon's identification with her is complete.

The play's central plot, then, however fractured by narration and flashbacks, is this erotic story. The question Simon's provocation poses -- the question of the relationship between Mindy's strangling of Raimondo and the plot involving Aunt Dan and Lemon -- could be clarified by asking whether the play repeats this structure of seduction. It does. The structure informs the play's address to its spectators and is also at the heart of the incident involving Mindy. The pattern is circular: Aunt Dan speaks of violence and seduces Lemon; Mindy commits an act of violence and seduces Aunt Dan.

Kristen Johnston, who plays Aunt Dan as though the world were too small to contain her, narrates a complicated story of swinging London. In a flashback, the play stages Mindy's mercenary seduction of Jasper, an American tourist. Jasper has won a hundred thousand pounds at a casino, and Mindy sells a night with herself for a large percentage of his loot. Dan watches the two having sex, and when Jasper has fallen asleep, the naked Mindy tells the story of Raimondo, which the play also stages. Mindy strangles Raimondo for money, on behalf of a friend who has identified Raimondo as a police informer. Dan falls hard for Mindy -- "this naked goddess" -- and the two spend a week together.

There are important differences between this affair and Aunt Dan's seduction of Lemon. Where Aunt Dan certainly desires a convert, it is not clear if Mindy intends to seduce Dan at all. Indeed, intentions beyond hunger for cash don't seem important to Mindy, at least in Moriber's performance. This Mindy has delegated all affect to her short yellow dress and her long black boots. Her blankness partly disguises the structure I have been pointing to: in a more alluring performance, one owing less to Antonioni's frigid version of 1960s London in Blow Up, the audience might feel the power of attraction more in general.

This production does, however, draw attention to the ways Mindy is Lemon's partner, and also her opposite. Mindy's instrumental sexuality and feral lack of conscience are the flip side of Lemon's "innocence." Mindy murders Raimondo on the same bed where Lemon talks with Aunt Dan. Where Mindy's fling with Aunt Dan is sexual, short, and grounded in the frisson of the narration of an act of violence, Lemon's relationship to Aunt Dan is erotic without being sexual. It's of long standing, and established around the fascination of an argument about violence others perform on one's behalf.

Aunt Dan sleeps with Mindy because Henry Kissinger, the great object of her fantasies, is otherwise occupied. But her attraction to Mindy also muddies her defense of state violence, since Mindy's murder takes the life of an agent of the state, a police informer. Thus the Mindy episode also suggests that the root of Dan's attraction to her lies in sadism, a sadism also present in Dan's admiration for the man of the world who knows that North Vietnamese villages have to burn for our sake. There is yet another invitation and seduction here: we can disavow this sadism if we like, pathologize Dan, and celebrate our own clear consciences.

Would it be possible to stage Aunt Dan and Lemon in such a way that Mindy seduces not only Dan but also the audience? We've fallen for killers before. Such a staging might emphasize the point which this continuously thought-provoking production makes in any case: that the audience -- this audience, this well-meaning, mostly liberal or even left-leaning crowd, in this revamped "Live Burlesk" theater -- has already been seduced, long ago, into forgetting the state violence that, we are assured, makes our comforts safe.

Aunt Dan and Lemon is the rare political play addressed to the audience it in fact has. If anything, it has gained in timeliness since 1985, when it was first staged in London and New York. Aunt Dan defends pre-emptive state violence and recalls the seductiveness of a private murder. The play's force does not lie only on the surface of its long speeches, but in the structure that ties speech, memory, and action together. There is no obvious key to this structure. Except of course in the memories, fears, desires, and resistance that tie us to state violence.


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