Our Mother’s Brief Affair

Our Mother’s Brief Affair Samuel J. Friedman Theatre A new play by Richard Greenberg Directed by Lynne Meadow Starring Linda Lavin Kate Arrington, Greg Keller, John Procaccino

 

by Brian Scott Lipton
Here’s a piece of invaluable advice for all playwrights. If you’re going to write a juicy part for a mother, to be played by a woman of a certain age—no matter how cold, self-absorbed or delusional that character is—make sure you cast Linda Lavin. Luckily for Richard Greenberg, he already knew this, and this veteran star’s perfectly calibrated performance makes Our Mother’s Brief Affair, now receiving its New York premiere at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, seem far more substantial than this slight if engaging work might feel in lesser hands.

 
Lavin’s onstage alter ego, Anna, whom we see in failing health in 2003 and 2006 and in far better times on 1973 (with all three time periods represented simultaneously by Santa Loquasto’s ultra-simple and unattractive set) is as her grown son Seth (a fine Greg Keller) says: “a warm-cold woman.” She is, we learn, a Depression-era Lower East Side girl (and middle sister) who settled for an unhappy marriage and had a pair of twins: Seth, who grew up to be a gay obituary writer, and Abby (Kate Arrington), who is now a lesbian mom in California, and is approaching death resignedly.

 
But before she goes, she decides to let the kids in on one of her big secrets, the brief affair of the title she had with a man (John Proccacino) she meets on a park bench while the teenaged Seth is nearby taking viola lessons. Before the show is through, Anna spills a couple of more secrets—including who that man really was (or was he?)—that changed how her children look at her.

 
As Greenberg has proven time and again, in plays such as The Dazzle and The Violet Hour, he has a true gift for language, so that even his most poetic speeches seem almost natural when they emerge. And while small-scale drama suits him, he is willing to tackle larger themes; here, it’s the effect of guilt on one’s actions as well as the need for self-forgiveness. But too much of the play is repetitive or unfulfilling; there’s perhaps 60 minutes of really fine writing within these two hours, no matter how hard director Lynne Meadow tries to distract us.

 
Fortunately, Lavin is onstage most of the time, almost effortlessly painting a complete portrait of Anna with simple brushstrokes, using her peerless timing to wring the most humor or pathos out of every phrase and making us complicit partner in her own thoughtless deeds and words. You wouldn’t want Anna to be your own mother, but you’ll still be glad you got to know her.

 

 

Our Mother’s Brief Affair. Through March 6 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (261 West 47th St. between Eighth Avenue and Broadway). www.ManhattanTheaterClub.com 

 

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