Casting Doesn't Add To Piquancy Of `Lemon'

----------------------------------------------------------------- Theater review

"Aunt Dan & Lemon" by Wallace Shawn, directed by David Schmader. Thursdays-Sundays, through April 27, New City Theater, 1634 11th Ave.; 323-6800. -----------------------------------------------------------------

Do proper English youngsters tend to call effeminate male friends of the family "auntie"?

One does in the new production of Wallace Shawn's ethically provocative 1985 play, "Aunt Dan & Lemon," at New City Theater. For no outstanding reason I can identify, other than just to show it can be done, director David Schmader casts an "androgynous" male actor, Charles Smith, as Aunt Dan, the wily corrupter of young Lemon (Sydney Fine).

The gambit adds no intriguing new wrinkles to the play, but it occasionally distracts from Shawn's probe behind the facade of "respectable" Anglo-American bohemianism.

Otherwise, Schmader's staging competently surveys the prickly questions this rather laborious script raises, about the often-veiled connections between personal self-interest and political callousness.

Mounted upstairs at New City, in a room that was hotter than a sweat lodge on opening night, the show cries out for some air circulation. (Opening a door would do it.)

The sweltering heat aside, Schmader and company lay out Shawn's play intelligently, on a wide-playing area where Fine's frail, anorexic Lemon regales us with disturbing tales of her childhood association with the ubiquitous Aunt Dan, a toxic influence if there ever was one.

From two sets of double doors come the figments of Lemon's memory: her warmhearted mother (Audrey Freudenberg) and stressed-out dad (Michael Shapiro), Aunt Dan and the ruthless party girl Mindy (Susanna Burney), whom Lemon only hears of and imagines.

As is typical of Shawn's dramas, we "dear, nice people" in the audience are quietly shoved against the wall. Maybe we too know someone like Aunt Dan, a staunch defender of individualism along with Henry Kissinger's bombing of Cambodia. And it's scary how easily we can make the leap with Lemon, as she presents her unblinking justification of the Nazi atrocities in World War II.

What's horrible about Lemon's arguments is their cool, twisted logic. Equally shocking is a scene in which Mindy calmly, with complete emotional detachment, seduces and murders for cash.

Schmader draws a distressingly fine performance from Fine, whose eyes glitter with feverish malnutrition. Freudenberg and Shapiro also come through capably, as do Matthew Sweeney and Jon Schroeder in small roles.

But Smith's portrayal is problematic, not just due to the gender switch. What made Linda Hunt's original Aunt Dan so insidious was her proper, almost dowdy look, belying the rottenness within. With his jaunty scarf and red bell-bottoms, Smith looks like a swinger from the get-go.