Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Steely Dan

Meg Taintor tempts Jen O'Connor to the dark side in Aunt Dan and Lemon.
Fascism - even Nazism - is seductive; or so playwright Wallace Shawn would have us believe in his best-known work, Aunt Dan and Lemon, which he has styled into a kind of seduction, too: its charismatic central character - the eccentrically glamorous Aunt Dan - is meant to ravish us with her embrace of the allure of the dictator, just as she does her sickly "niece," the eponymous "Lemon." Indeed, we get the idea we're supposed to leave the show half-convinced - as the dazzled Lemon has been - that the Nazis were simply more honest about what they were doing than the rest of us are.

As you may be able to tell from that opening paragraph, however, I haven't been seduced by either Shawn's argument or his play. The overt political passages in Aunt Dan - particularly its famous debate over the ethics of Henry Kissinger (whom Dan adores) - have an undeniable dramatic snap (as most intelligent political arguments do). But to keep his conceit going, the playwright simply withholds from the characters opposing Aunt Dan the rhetorical resourcefulness required to demolish her claims (which is an easier task than the play pretends). And to be blunt, you can hate Henry Kissinger while realizing that he wasn't quite a Nazi, and that such unhappy distinctions are actually quite important in a fallen world like this one.

In short, in intellectual terms Aunt Dan is rigged; it's designed to shake up the kind of person who reads the Phoenix (or, yes, even the New Yorker) without ever really burrowing beneath the surface of its own assumptions. I admit that as an emotional (rather than intellectual) seduction, however, the play can still work - after all, plenty of people (like Lemon) have given in to the dark side because of the charisma of figures like Aunt Dan rather than their arguments.

But I'm afraid to seal that emotional deal, a production must triumph over playwright Shawn's rambling, naive dramaturgy, and while this is clearly possible - several productions of Aunt Dan have won raves - I'm afraid in the current Whistler in the Dark production (at the Factory Theater through May 21st), the able cast doesn't quite make it over that bar.

This despite the fact that many of them - like Jen O'Connor and Scott Sweatt - are now the leading lights of Boston's fringe.  And they're joined, in the pivotal role of Aunt Dan, by Whistler's own artistic director, Meg Taintor (at top, with O'Connor); the directorial reins this time around have been given over to the New Rep's capable Bridget Kathleen O'Leary.  Supporting roles have been filled by fringe stalwarts as well - folks like Melissa Baroni, Melissa Barker, Mac Young, and Alejandro Simoes - the smart, resourceful kids who, if you're interested in edgy theatre in this town, you find yourself constantly bumping into.  You know when these folks are involved that a production at the very least is going to be articulate, clever, and insightful.

Which is definitely the case with Aunt Dan and Lemon, at least at first; and as long as Shawn keeps questions of politics to the fore, the production convinces, if in a gently ironic mode.  Certainly Taintor puts over Dan's arguments forcefully - which are, roughly, that we have no business criticising the ethical lapses of someone like Henry Kissinger, as he has taken on the burden of moral choice for all our sakes (it's a less-sophisticated, but more passionate, version of the line we heard recently from the Grand Inquisitor, too).

Of course there's some truth to this idea, and in deference to it we routinely give our leaders great moral latitude, and even wipe the bloodstains from profiles of men like Roosevelt and Churchill because history has demonstrated the value of their general goals. But there's always an unspoken calculus at work in this kind of thing, and whether sympathy with Kissinger's far-smaller moral burden can be stretched to cover such atrocities as the carpet-bombing of innocent civilians - well, that's a far more doubtful question, isn't it.  And I'm afraid history has all but mocked Aunt Dan's moral logic; it turned out that Vietnam was not any kind of strategic lynchpin in the fight against communism - and that the divine Henry wasn't engaged in a titanic struggle of any kind.  Indeed, we now trade happily with the very governments whose expansion Kissinger murdered thousands of innocents to stop; to be blunt, he killed all those people for nothing.

So there aren't actually any arguments to be made anymore about that aging, crass, would-be playboy.  Still, my moral contempt for Kissinger doesn't make me fall into the trap of imagining that he was the same as Hitler; yet that's the next step that Shawn seems to want us to make, in an odd series of scenes that reveal Aunt Dan's checkered sexual and moral past.  And this is where the Whistlers lose their way (as, I have a hunch, most productions do).  To be fair, it's not entirely their fault; Shawn's "second act" (in quotes because there's no intermission) is pitted with odd lacunae: we learn in flashback, for instance, that Aunt Dan's free-living set was more than just louche, but actually murderous, but this only evokes an odd kind of radio silence from Lemon that doesn't really synch up with her closing "Hooray for Hitler" rant. A seeming last-minute reversal in character for the aging Aunt Dan likewise cries out for explanation, or at least integration into Lemon's ongoing narrative of self.

Alas, Shawn is of little help on these points, so it's up to the actors to connect these disparate narrative dots; but in the Whistler production, I'm afraid O'Connor and Taintor, who both make initially strong impressions, haven't been guided by O'Leary through arcs that adequately interpret their characters' clumsily-rendered trajectories. O'Connor remains far too sturdy as Lemon - we don't really feel her falling further into Aunt Dan's thrall - and Taintor isn't able to tap into the demonic something-or-other that Shawn seems to be hinting at. Other cast members fare a bit better - Melissa Baroni plays Lemon's mother with a subtly sympathetic exasperation, and Melissa Barker is amusingly cool in her murderous dispatch.

But if the evening never quite gels, one can't help but applaud the Whistlers for once again wrestling with a politically and formally challenging text - and pinning it to the mat at least half the time. If only our larger theatres had half their guts and smarts! Just think how exciting the local scene would be.

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