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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Our Mother's Brief Affair
Our Mother's Brief Affair, Greenberg's ninth world premiere at SCR since 1988 is brief indeed — in length and in import. Traipsing his way across the dynamics of middle class Jews, Greenberg is once again turning his lens on a family unit, its conflicts and its secrets. The titular mother, Anna (played by Jenny O'Hara), is a dying dowager who cracks as wise as her twin progeny Seth (Arye Gross) and Abby (Marin Hinkle).
Anna is an entirely ordinary person — just the way the playwright admires her— who may once have engaged in a slightly extraordinary act. Anna's also toting around a secret from her teen years that prevents her from relaxing, from being a decent dancer.
Of course Anna's perception of what's consequential may well differ from yours, from her children's and unquestionably from Richard Greenberg's. There's certainly nothing criminal in finding beauty or drama in the mundane, in trying to give an ordinary life a flash of import. Greenberg, who has successfully dramatized baseball stars (in Take me Out) and quiz show celebrities (Night and her Stars) need make no apology for returning to the more intimate canvas of nobodies. Except that Brief Affair is a boring play with a flimsy agenda which no amount of careful direction of clever dialog can mask. There's maybe 20 minutes of a watchable tale here which Greenberg and director Pam MacKinnon have somehow stretched into a 100 minute intermission-less play.
Interspersed within the narrative of Anna's story — which is passed back and forth by Anna's children, Greenberg treats us to the witty neuroses of Seth and Abby. The former is a gay obit writer who endures his mom's gentle chiding ("If you're not going to sleep with anyone, would it kill you to not sleep with a woman?") Abby's a librarian and a new mother who has uprooted to Orange County (the playwright frequently slips in references to his adopted region), is in a relationship with a woman, but is now thinking about ending it.
Seth and Abby say things like "Laguna lacks a sense of apocalyptic intimacy" and "You're a cosmonaut" as though they were auditioning each other for a role in the next Woody Allen scrip. Which would be fitting since, as far as this critic can see, they serve absolutely no function in Our Mother's Brief Affair except to crack witticisms and pad the play's length.
It was during Seth's viola lessons that Anna, in her mid 40s and unhappily married, found herself on a park bench striking up a connection with a man from her old neighborhood named Phil (Matthew Arkin) The resulting affair, which is more about total psychological fulfillment than it is about sex, lasts a couple of months withstanding a bombshell of a secret dropped by Phil. Once this revelation is aired, Greenberg seems to ponder jumping the tracks and fashioning a different tale altogether. Instead, he weaves things back to Anna and her deep dark secret via the sensible — if mushy — pronouncement by Phil that "In the end, I think we all have to do the hardest thing. We have to forgive ourselves." Easy for him to say.
Their banter aside, Gross and Hinkle are pleasant enough tour guides through this piffle so that you wouldn't mind seeing them reappear in another play. MacKinnon wisely guides O'Hara away from the schtick that a mother of this order might otherwise invite. In O'Hara's hands, Anna is who she is: a woman with some pride in her family, with a few regrets and, yes, with a couple of 11th hour dreams. Arkin smoothly embodies the enigmatic Phil and, briefly, Seth and Abby's father.
MacKinnon sets the action not at the hospital bed from which Anna is confessing, but on a couple of park benches within a generic New York City park (designed by Sybil Wickersheimer). Lop-Chi Chu's lighting nicely brings in day and twilight shadings as appropriate.
Fans of Greenberg may recognize Anna from the playwright's 2000 offering Everett Beekin. Greenberg may well have a continuing family saga in the works. If so, something is going to have to pop these people out into sharper and more dramatic focus. Mother Anna's affair, no matter how brief, no matter its ramifications, doesn't do it.