Aunt Dan is hardly the typical Trump supporter. The character portrayed by Kristen Johnston in the New Group’s online reunion reading of Wallace Shawn’s play was the youngest American ever to teach at Oxford University; sophisticated, sexy, free-spirited, full of gossipy stories of decadent Swinging London in the 1960s, she bowled over her best friends’ 11-year-old daughter, whom she nicknamed Lemon, becoming like an aunt to her. It’s the adult, sickly Lemon (Lili Taylor) who is the narrator of “Aunt Dan and Lemon.” Aunt Dan’s influence on Lemon, we come to understand, helps explain how Lemon now admires the Nazis.
Aunt Dan adored Henry Kissinger; she passionately defends Kissinger’s decision to bomb villages in Southeast Asia. We see her arguing with Lemon’s mother about it (Melissa Errico.) “What about the things that would have happened the next day if the bomb hadn’t been dropped?” Kissinger’s journalism critics especially incense her. “How dare they attack him for killing peasants? What decisions did they make today?”
And so, Shawn wants us to understand, it’s not such a leap that Lemon believes the Nazis “were trying to recreate a certain way of life.” As she cheerfully explains, “the mere fact of killing human beings in order to create a certain way of life is not something that distinguishes Nazis from everybody else.”
“Aunt Dan and Lemon” is meant to be a chilling and seductive analysis of how civilized individuals, and by extension a society, can justify cruelty. “Do you actually remember feeling compassion?” Lemon asks, and answers; she doesn’t think compassion exists.
The play was originally staged in 1985; the New Group’s revival occurred in 2003 after the invasion of Iraq.
It would be hard to call this reunion reading ill-timed, but “Aunt Dan and Lemon” makes much the same points as “Evening at the Talk House,” its companion piece, and does so less effectively. It is a tricky, talky, shaggy dog story of a play. Lemon talks and talks, providing narration between scenes that don’t always seem connected to one another. The cast, almost all of whom were in the 2003 production, were obviously given little time to rehearse; several stumble over lines and then repeat them. They are nevertheless often mesmerizing in individual scenes, even if the scenes are baffling. What was the point of that scene of a decadent party with Aunt Dan’s friends, you might wonder. (Is Shawn equating debauchery with despotism?) Where is this going? This makes “Aunt Dan and Lemon” occasionally intriguing along the way – and an evident structurally flawed, thematically heavy-handed play by Lemon’s shocking final monologue.
Aunt Dan and Lemon is available online through November 29. $25
Cast: Kristen Johnston as “Aunt Dan” and Lili Taylor as “Lemon,” with Marcia Stephanie Blake, Liam Craig, Isaach De Bankole, Melissa Errico, Carlos Leon, Emily Cass McDonnell, Brooke Sunny Moriber, Maulik Pancholy, Stephen Park and Bill Sage,