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Our Mother's Brief Affair

Who was she?
— Seth, an obituary writer initiating this investigation into his dying mother's life.

Linda Lavin
Linda Lavin (Photo Credit: Joan Marcus)
That "who was she" question establishes what Richard Greenberg's latest play, Our Mother's Brief Affair is about: an exploration of the unknowable, incomprehensible aspects of the lives of those closest to us — in Seth's case, his dying mother Anna. The bon-mot peppered script and the role of Anna — an ordinary woman realizing her yearning for at least some moments of being extraordinary via the affair of the play's title — seems written specifically for Linda Lavin, that unfailingly funny yet poignant interpreter of acerbic Jewish mothers.

Yet, Greenberg premiered his play with a different cast at South Coast Rep with whom he's had as long a connection as Manhattan Theatre Club where it's now opened with Lavin indeed in the starring role. I'm enough of a fan of Greenberg's elegant writing and sparkling wit to like not just his hits like Take Me Out (a Pulitzer prize nominee) and Three Days of Rain the under-appreciated The Dazzle and The Violet Hour . So, call me a cockeyed optimist when I went to MTC's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre confident that Greenberg had done some more work so that Linda Lavin could make Our Mother's Brief Affair the incisive meditation on identity with socio-political overtones it wants to be.

Lavin is very decidedly watchable, managing to keep the role that's become something of a Lavin stereotype from coming off as such. She delivers Greenberg's one-liners with flawless timing and also speaks volumes with just a look.

One can forgive the too convenient obituary writing career for Seth (Greg Keller, an always worth seeing actor). The structural device of interspersing Anna's deathbed memories (muddled as a result of previous near death battles as well as a declining grip on reality) with dialogue passed back and forth between Seth and his twin sister Abby (Kate Arrington) works quite well. This is especially so for Keller who in the larger, more developed role also gets some of Greenberg's best observations. (e.g.: "Death still has to be orderly for the obit writer to continue functioning. It has to be proportionate. Glut--global massacre-- and the profession couldn't keep up; we'd have to disband"). Also quite effective is the way Santo Loquasto has executed Greenberg's stage notes for an unfussy, abstract set, and Peter Kaczorowski's time and place enhancing lighting.

Unfortunately, the playwright seems to have left it up to Lavin and director Lynne Meadows to move this play into my list of prime-Greenberg plays, rather than keep it with sub-prime entries like Everett Bekin in which some of the current play's characters seem to have been born. The only changes seem to be that he's traded references to the original production's California locale, for dated references to New York landmarks (long gone department stores like Alexander's, Fortunoff's and Klein's) geared to MTC's many senior citizen subscribers. That goes for Anna and Seth's argument about what constitutes a liberal paper — for Seth it's the New York Times, for Anna the Post qualifies for people "who weren't good at folding." (It's unlikely that anyone under age 60 has ever seen a lot of subway riders reading the Times , folded or otherwise).

Though Lavin is still at the top of her game—she's both funny and poignant and still looks great at 78— there's so much she can do with what's been given her. The zingers are often not up to Greenberg's sharpest. And the big secret about the other party of that brief affair, a man she met on a park bench (John Procaccino ably doubling with a brief appearance as Anna's husband), just doesn't add up to a really well developed, provocative plot development.

Lynne Meadows's direction doesn't help the narrative device to hold up. It starts well with Seth addressing the audience with his exploratory investigation about the person beneath the facade he knows, echoed by unrelated zingers from her. But Seth and Abby's own stories — he's gay but without an active sex life, and she a Lesbian whose marriage seems no better than her mother's — don't mesh all that well into Anna's. What's more, the audience addressing style becomes a bit tiresome by the time we get to the big reveal about the identity of Anna's lover that turns the lights on for seth and Abby's fourth wall breaking historic run down about his role in a once hot national scandal .

From an overall perspective, neither the affair or the secrets of both parties it brings to the forefront are consequential enough to engage our emotions the way Greenberg's last MTC play, Assembled Parties, did. Ultimately I found myself agreeing with my California critic that this might have worked better as a short story. For sure, Our Mother's Brief Affair would have benefited from a briefer than 2 hour run time.

Our Mother's Brief Affair by Richard Greenberg
Directed by Lynne Meadow.
Cast: Linda Lavin (Anna), Kate Arrington (Abby), Greg Keller (Seth) and John Procaccino (Lover/Abe).
Sets: Santo Loquasto
Costumes: Tom Broecker
Lighting: Peter Kaczorowski
Sound: Fitz Patton
Stage Manager: Diane DiVita
Running time: 2 hours including 1 intermission
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre 261 West 47th Street
From 12/28/15; opening 1/20/16; closing 3/06/16
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 1/21 press performance
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