Our Mother’s Brief Affair begins with Linda Lavin in a mother’s deathbed confession to her grown gay twin children, but by the end, two hours later, playwright Richard Greenberg has sprung several surprises. The biggest surprise is how much the play feels like a first draft for a better play…or notes for several other plays.
Lavin, more or less reprising the role of the flinty Jewish mother that she has perfected in such serious comedies as Nicky Silver’s The Lyons, portrays Anna Cantor, as seen by her less-than-adored children Seth (Greg Keller), an obituary writer, and his twin sister Abby (Kate Arrington), a librarian.
“Who was she?” Seth asks in the first line of the play, as Anna sits on a park bench. So, it is to be a memory play, and perhaps a mystery. But, as it turns out, the memories are all suspect.
“She was an average situational liar but not at all a maker of fables,” Seth tells us about his mother – but that itself may not be the truth. “She was nostalgic but not for anything that had ever happened.”
After that semi-prologue/semi-warning, the story begins when Anna, now physically frail and perhaps mentally as well, says to Seth: “Did I ever tell you about my affair?”
It takes deep into Act I for us to meet the lover (John Procaccino) and then the very end of Act I to learn his secret identity. He is unveiled as a much-hated historical figure from the 1950’s who is now so obscure that the houselights go up and Seth and Abby spend several minutes explaining to the audience who he was.
The playwright uses this development to swerve into the retelling from a new angle of the story of the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the Jewish New Yorkers who were convicted of spying for the Soviet Union. Then the play swerves into Anna’s confession of a secret from her childhood, a single moment of selfishness which to the audience seems minor, but about which Anna felt so guilty that it ruled and ruined the rest of her life: “When an angry man asked me to marry him, what right had I to say no? Someone who’d done what I’d done?”
At the end of the play, the playwright swerves once again – into what may or may not be a revelation of what may or may not be Anna’s capacity for spinning a fable.
As he demonstrated in such clever and affecting comedies as Take Me Out and The Assembled Parties, Richard Greenberg is a funny and intelligent writer who has much on his mind. There is plenty potentially thought-provoking in Our Mother’s Brief Affair – about family and memory; betrayal, guilt and forgiveness; mortality and legacy; about a life-changing moment – or the moment you wished had changed your life, which further prompts the question: Do such moments actually exist for real people?
Greenberg makes some of this truly moving, ably fits in material to further his themes – it’s no accident that Seth writes obituaries for a living — and applies on his construction a light coat of one-liners that approaches Henny Youngman volume. But only about half of these jokes land — the others simply are neither funny nor even smart – and this is a symptom of the problem with the play as a whole.
Although Our Mother’s Brief Affair was first produced in 2009 in a different production at South Coast Rep, the play feels as if it was written too quickly, that it is a work in progress. One can imagine, next to Seth’s long passages of explanation and description, Greenberg scribbling in the margin “Here’s where I’ll dramatize.” If the play is undernourished dramatically, it also feels overstuffed with (underdeveloped) ideas. At the same time, too much comes off as filler.
All four performers are fine; Greg Keller in particular does an appealing turn as the sardonic, emotionally stunted but adorable Jewish son. Linda Lavin has her character down pat; she’s always worth watching. It would be a pleasure to watch her in something different.
Our Mother’s Brief Affair is on stage at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater (261 W. 47th Street, New York, NY 10036, between Broadway and Eighth Avenue) through March 6.
Tickets and details
Our Mother’s Brief Affair by Richard Greenberg . Directed by Lynne Meadow . Featuring Linda Lavin (Anna), Kate Arrington (Abby), Greg Keller (Seth) and John Procaccino (Lover/Abe). Sets by Santo Loquasto; costumes by Tom Broecker; lighting by Peter Kaczorowski; sound by Fitz Patton; production stage manager, Diane DiVita. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.