Suppose that a real young woman were to say what the heroine of Wallace Shawn's "Aunt Dan and Lemon" says at Taper, Too--"I must admit, there's something I find refreshing about the Nazis." How would you react?
One factor would be the woman's body language. If her gaze were fixed, if her words came in bunches, if her hands kept repeating an odd pecking gesture, you might see her as an obsessive, a person more to be pitied than argued with.
If, however, she seemed poised and intelligent, a person in charge of her mind rather than a person in the grip of an \o7 idee fixe\f7 , you would have to hear her out and deal with what she said. That was the task given the audience when Shawn's play was first presented at the New York Public Theatre in 1985. To be sure, Lemon, the young woman, was presented as an invalid and her Aunt Dan (for Danielle) as a voyeur. But each knew how to marshal her thoughts in an alarmingly coherent way. You couldn't dismiss either as \o7 just\f7 a flake.
So you had to come up with some intelligent response to their notions--to Lemon's idea, for instance, that we pretend to feel "compassion" for others, but can quite cheerfully adjust to the idea of destroying others to keep our "way of life" intact, especially if we don't personally have to do the destroying.
Don't worry: You won't have to think about that in Robert Egan's production at Taper, Too. Nor about any of the other ideas in the play. To be sure, they are voiced. But they are transparent rationalizations for the personal hang-ups of the characters--such obvious ones that it seems silly to spend two whole hours poring over them.
Poor Lemon (Elizabeth McGovern) is all neurasthenia, to the point where you think of Norman Bates huddling under his shawl in "Psycho." McGovern doesn't approach even a fake intellectual coherence. We're to feel sorry for her, not be appalled by what she's saying. It's about child molestation, period.
Kathy Bates' Aunt Dan is seen as the molester (intellectually, not physically). She too comes across purely as a "case"--the unattractive-feeling outsider who can only live through the adventures of others, the more scandalous the better.
Certainly that's a part of Aunt Dan. But where's her intellectual energy, her verbal flair, the fascination an Aunt Dan might indeed have for a precocious, isolated 11-year-old? Bates needn't have imitated Linda Hunt, who played the role in New York. She could have played her own Aunt Dan, a forthright American academic in sensible shoes who pushes through her arguments in a way that terrifies the men on the faculty.
Instead, it's all feeling and pauses. This Aunt Dan actually seems to struggle for words. Rather than winning her argument about her beloved Henry Kissinger with Lemon's mother (Judy Geeson), she loses it--to the satisfaction of us liberals in the audience, but to the ruin of the play.
We go home reassured that Nazism speaks only to sick minds, that people who like Kissinger are compensating for something, and that we are in the possession of a truth so obvious that it doesn't have to be defended.
Since the value of the play is to make the viewer see how shaky his defense of his truth might be when challenged by the likes of Aunt Dan, this production seems to me pointless.
It does have some quite raunchy bedroom stuff, however, as Aunt Dan pours out her voyeuristic adventures to poor Lemon. The actors here--Cynthia Carle, George De La Pena, John De Lancie, Jeff Allin--are fine. But the raunch is underlined three times by Egan so that we appreciate how corruptly everyone (even Lemon) is behaving.
Directoritis strikes again! This is a good, provocative play, and I hope another Los Angeles theater will do it, with a lighter hand. Egan's production does have a resourceful set by Mark Wendland (a lot achieved in very little space) and ironically delicate incidental music by N. D. Birnbaum.
'AUNT DAN AND LEMON'
Wallace Shawn's play, presented by the Mark Taper Forum at Taper, Too. Director Robert Egan. Set and costume design Mark Wendland. Lighting Paulie Jenkins. Original music and sound design N. D. Birnbaum. Production stage manager Tracy B. Cohen. Production assistant Lisa Farrand. With Elizabeth McGovern, Judy Geeson, John De Lancie, Kathy Bates, Jeff Allin, Cynthia Carle, George De La Pena. Plays Tuesdays-Sundays at 8 p.m., with Saturday matinees at 2:30 p.m. Closes April 26. Tickets $15. John Anson Ford Cultural Center, 2580 E. Cahuenga Blvd. (213) 972-7231.