While I sort of skimmed this review, I did not take it seriously enough. I basically thought that, yes Wallace Shawn writes challenging plays, but I've seen The Designated Mourner and Fever and found them rewarding. However, this is a deeply flawed play, and while the acting is generally solid (with the exception of one actor not up to snuff), I didn't enjoy it -- or rather find it worthy of my time. There was one short bit that I did like where Aunt Dan explained realpolitik and the Vietnam War using several stuffed animals -- Mickey Mouse for the US, a small tiger for North Vietnam and of course a panda (China) and a red teddy bear (U.S.S.R.) That certainly does not justify going, however, and I would not recommend going to see the play. It's really too bad, since with some strategic cuts and reshaping of the Aunt Dan character, it actually would get across its points much better and would have been a play that I could recommend.
I'm not really sure this play can be SPOILED, but I will be talking about a few key plot points, so just in case...
Actually, I am going to detour and talk briefly about Alfred Hitchcock's Rope. I know a lot of people rate this movie really highly, since it was all done in 10 long takes or something like that. However, I detest the movie, since I think it is a completely dishonest intellectual exercise. If you recall, Jimmy Stewart's character is this unconventional prep-school headmaster who promoted Nietzschean ideas. He is asked several times by others if he really means what he said about how some people are superior to others and to them nothing is forbidden (I'm paraphrasing a bit). Nonetheless, Stewart sticks to his guns and says he meant it, then finds out of course that he is horrified when his two former students actually took him seriously. He may be "crushed" inside, but he still gets to be the "hero" of the film by bringing the police in. I just find this appalling at every level. Now if Stewart had promoted some kind of elite ideology (supporting racial segregation or even promoting a birth control-based eugenics program based on IQ or something) but always stayed just behind the line of promoting murder, then it would be ok for him to be appalled that his students took the next logical step, even if he did shoulder part of the responsibility. However, he frequently talked up de Quincey's "On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts" in a non-ironic way, so he really has no moral high ground whatsoever to stand upon. Maybe some day I will give Rope another chance, but probably not.
The play Aunt Dan and Lemon has a different structural problem. Shawn wants to sort of prod and unsettle the liberal intellectual audience, or at least that was what I thought he wanted to do. It's quite possible that there were so many tough-minded realists running around New York who were railing against the soft liberals that the realists became his actual target, though frankly a too easy one. Anyway, for the play to really work, Aunt Dan would have to promote a certain kind of neo-liberalism and be an admirer of Kissinger (fine) but to still respect certain limits. Then when her protégée went all the way and started admiring the Nazis, she would be properly horrified at how her ideas had led in this direction. Instead, Aunt Dan seems as amoral as a tomcat and probably would merely advise Lemon to keep her ideas a bit more private but wouldn't be particularly horrified by her. (As an aside, my understanding is that Oxbridge tutors would have had almost no job security at that time, as opposed to lecturers, and Aunt Dan seems to have been a person whose cannot keep her opinions to herself, so it does seem odd that someone, particularly an American, firmly in favor of escalating the Vietnam War would have still kept her job in England.) I don't see enough distance between the two, and in what may be the play's most glaring structural problem, Lemon never tells Aunt Dan that she has become fascinated by Nazi ideology, so there is no moment of recognition or self-reflection on Aunt Dan's part (not that I was particularly convinced by Jimmy Stewart's character's transformation). Beyond all this, if Shawn's goal was really to tweak the noses of the NY intellectual establishment, I think he completely failed, since Aunt Dan is not-so-secretly a monster, which is what liberals already believe about those that stick up for realpolitik. Thus, it became incredibly easy to dismiss Aunt Dan's hard truths about what governments do to protect their interests, which can't have been what Shawn really wanted.
Maybe Shawn did intend for Lemon to be an inferior version of Aunt Dan, far less intellectually adept and less persuasive. She tries to draw us all into her perspective and get us to admit something (that we can't really know what compassion means) and then logically go from there to say that the Nazis weren't really all bad, just misguided. This is the kind of rhetorical move that I resisted in Akhtar's Disgraced, but it was more effective in that play than here where it completely falls flat. You only have to think for a minute or two that, sorry Lemon, I can think of many cases where compassion and caring for other humans actually matters. Ok, if we were all stranded in Donner Pass, then maybe things would get a bit dicey, but just because moral philosophy breaks down in extreme cases doesn't mean that compassion between people is false. Once that building block of her argument is easily dismantled, the entire edifice comes down and she is just another nutter who happens to admire killing and thinks everyone else secretly does too. (I don't think that was Shawn's intention, but it is hard to say.) I wasn't drawn in for a moment and thus really was bored rather than challenged by the ending of the play.
It wouldn't take all that much to improve the play. You could still have Aunt Dan overshare with an 11 year old (just the bit about her affair with a great thinker), and she could still have an adolescent crush on Kissinger (very reminiscent of Amy Poehler's character on Parks and Rec and her admiration of Hillary Clinton, who is in her own way a bit closer to Kissinger than to Madeleine Albright, for example). I think she was very good in being persuasive about how society expects government to do its dirty work for it, and that probably goes double for the citizens of Canada and the EU that are largely free riders on the defense spending of the United States. I also liked how Lemon's mother still stood up to Aunt Dan's bluster and said (with a quaver in her voice) that surely Kissinger sometimes made the wrong choice. (This is basically my view. I do understand the world is a dangerous place, and that I wouldn't want to make the difficult decisions that Presidents and Secretaries of State face. But in more cases than not, the neocon approach has actually made the world less safe. In most cases, active intervention on the part of the West has only made things worse.)
However, everything about Aunt Dan being a voyeur and a sexual swinger should be cut. The entire subplot about Mindy and her killing someone for hire should have been cut. Aunt Dan just sort of laughed it all off as some kind of hi-jinks. First of all, this would have shaved 20 minutes off a play that was far too long, and second, having her essentially approve of the murder completely undermined Aunt Dan's position as a teller of hard truths, as I already mentioned above. When it comes right down to it, the only person we actually see Aunt Dan convert with her brilliance is an 11 year old child, so it isn't like this play is even an effective warning about the seductiveness of evil. I find it really hard to understand that Shawn wouldn't have seen this as a major structural problem. In any case, this is a quite unpleasant play that left a very bad taste in my mouth and isn't worth sitting through.