If you were to step on Wallace Shawn's foot, he would probably beg your pardon. If you were to push ahead of him in line, he might offer to hold your briefcase. He is, in short, the round little guy with the slightly comical face you have seen in such movies as Manhattan and Lovesick, and he almost apologizes for having written Off-Broadway's newest hit, Aunt Dan & Lemon. "At the risk of sounding self-pitying, the project taxed my resources to the limit and sometimes beyond," he says. "It took more brains than I had, and to figure out how to write it, I had to borrow some of next year's brains and the next year's brains as well."
In fact, if Aunt Dan had been dismissed, as were most of his previous efforts, he might have abandoned the theater altogether. "I just don't think I can write a better play than this one," he says. But how could such a pleasant person write a drama that is at once so unpleasant and annoying, yet so provocative that half of New York seems to be waiting to get into the Public Theater? The answer is that, like many moralists with a pen, Shawn has set off a verbal time bomb, mostly in a series of monologues in which his characters rationalize all sorts of evils, including Hitler's atrocities. "I'm a rather amiable person," he says, "but I believe that our society is not just a little bit sick, but very, very, very sick. That's why I write the things I do about these diseased minds. There's something dangerous about the play in that it shows brutality made intellectually respectable."
Lemon (Kathryn Pogson) is a neurotic young Englishwoman who sits in her London flat reading about the Nazis, whom she admires, and musing over her childhood, which was dominated by Aunt Dan (Linda Hunt), a slightly sinister friend of her parents. Aunt Dan, it turns out, is crazy, but crazy in the way some people are at cocktail parties; she is able to find a plausible argument for almost any evil that governments commit, and she has turned Lemon into her philosophical clone. "Lemon presents the justification for pure selfishness," says Shawn, "even for sadistic murder. The question is raised: To what extent have we already accepted these justifications? I intentionally set out to leave the audience frustrated and unsatisfied."
The son of William Shawn, the editor of The New Yorker--and a man famous for his almost mandarin courtesy--young Wally was raised in a cocoon of kindness where such selfishness was unthinkable. Only when he was sent away to summer camp did he learn the awful truth about the rest of humanity. He has never recovered from the shock. "The counselors were very rough and occasionally sadistic. Once, when they were annoyed with a boy, they actually suggested that we beat him up! The whole world turned out to be like that camp. I still can't get over it, and writing, for me, is a way of trying to make sense of this world I'm surprised to find myself in."