Our Mother's Brief Affair -- Theater Review

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For an hour and 45 minutes, Richard Greenberg's new play about a "Flatbush on the Thames" family's dotty indifference to reality and self-knowledge holds the audience with a delightfully bittersweet blend of laughter, romance and mystery. The streetwise, battered Jewish characters who populate his latest premiere -- "Our Mother's Brief Affair," presented by South Coast Repertory -- gambol surrealistically through fields of delight, envy, anger and dismay until the story drifts off into a fog of acceptance.

The story is as superficially straightforward as a play about deconstructing fantasies can be. A pair of vacillating gay twins (Arye Gross and Marin Hinkle) are attending their ailing, idiosyncratic eightysomething mother (Jenny O'Hara) as she lies, not for the first time, in a hospital bed. The difference is that she is revealing secrets about her ordinary life. In Greenberg's universe, though, no life is ordinary, and no deconstruction is straightforward.

It is not entirely a gambol. The son is an obituary writer and a failed violist -- now the musical stand-in for every dormouse who ever aspired to be an artist -- who resides in the comic hallways of Woody Allen and S.J. Perelman. The daughter is struggling to find the key to a relationship with her daughter.

In a darker turn, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg rear their heads in a curiously implausible but imaginative way that, while providing an explanation of the mother's coming to terms with her life, perilously treads the boundary between relevant and incongruous. Nor is it clear whether the Rosenbergs' intrusion of fact (or fancy) into an intense emotional affair makes the play's tone more serious. It does make the one-act, intermissionless tour de force a bit long rounding into the homestretch.

What Greenberg gets brilliantly right, aside from the flow of dialogue and action and a terrific sense of humor that emphasizes warmth and forgiveness -- where Allen goes for bittersweet hilarity and anal self-loathing -- is an operatic sense of ensemble in which the actors alternate as narrators and participants in an exhilarating series of soliloquies, duos, trios and quartets.

O'Hara, in her SCR debut, commands the stage with a stunning combination of power, eloquence and humor, complemented to perfection by womb-mates Gross -- who doesn't waste a second setting the play into motion with his droll, gallows-humor manner -- and Hinkle, who creates an unforgettable woman resigned to an oddly satisfying bicoastal existence. As the two men in the mother's life, Matthew Arkin navigates dangerous shoals with agility and enormously appealing flashes of charm.

The production is as near-perfect as a world premiere can be. The chemistry between the script and the production is more like alchemy. The identification between the actors and their roles is nearly as seamless as their onstage relationships. Working on a simple yet beautifully arranged and highly effective stage, and dressed in slightly off-kilter costumes that make them fascinating to watch, each actor embraces her or his character and space with absorbing passion.

This play deserves a sellout run in Costa Mesa and should make a Los Angeles appearance at the earliest opportunity.

Venue: Segerstrom Stage, South Coast Repertory, Costa Mesa (Through May 3)
Cast: Arye Gross, Jenny O'Hara, Marin Hinkle, Matthew Arkin
Playwright: Richard Greenberg
Director: Pam MacKinnon
Scenic designer: Sybil Wickersheimer
Costume designer: Rachel Myers
Lighting designer: Lap-Chi Chu
Sound designer: Michael K. Hooker
Casting: Joanne DeNaut
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