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It takes some doing to stifle the prickly humor of Linda Lavin, but Our Mother’s Brief Affair makes her character both an unreliable narrator and one who’s astringent to the point of unpleasantness. Playwright Richard Greenberg and director Lynne Meadow last collaborated on 2013’s The Assembled Parties, which explored the melancholy beauty of memory and the weight of secrets for a New York Jewish family in sorrowful decline. The delicate brushstrokes brought to that haunting story make the aridity of this unsatisfying earlier play, which has some thematic overlap, all the more disappointing. A madly overworked but underdeveloped little piece, it mistakes narration for dramatization, and verbiage for genuine feeling.
The play was well received in its 2009 premiere in a different production at South Coast Rep. Go figure. Based on the evidence here, it’s difficult to imagine anyone finding much emotional depth in this curdled bummer. It shuffles time and narrative viewpoint in the writer’s customary manner, but plays more like a short story reading. What’s more, it fails to build an empathetic connection to any of the four principal characters. Instead, the Cantors are a cold, distancing bunch, a family defined by at least two generations of unhappy upbringings.
Lavin plays the brittle matriarch, Anna, a version of whom was first introduced with her sister Sophie in Greenberg’s 2001 play, Everett Beekin, which was about forgetting, rather than remembering, the past. A woman described by her adult son Seth (Greg Keller) as “intensely absent,” she escaped her awful mother by marrying into misery with an angry man and settling in a Long Island starter home that ended up being for keeps. A widow for many years, she’s now on the latest in a long series of possible deathbeds, with encroaching senility.
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Seth is an obit writer with a hunger for details. He also describes his mother as “an average situational liar but not at all a maker of fables,” so when she starts opening up about an affair that took place while he was in his teens, he’s curious. His twin sister, Abby (Kate Arrington), flies in from Southern California, leaving behind all that insidious sunshine to join him at their mother’s New York hospital bedside and help excavate the past. Both of Anna’s children are gay and living emotionally stagnant lives. Seth claims to have no interest in dating, let alone relationships, while Abby feels ambivalent about her partner and unsure how to bond with their 10-month-old daughter, to whom she’s taken to reading Holocaust literature.
Jewish guilt is a big, bludgeoning theme here, and the affair, which blurs elements of truth and fantasy, is revealed to be Anna’s path to self-forgiveness. Part of her reason for sharing is also to give herself a retroactive hint of glamor, via her rapturous account of Saturday morning Central Park assignations during which she wore a Burberry trench and a smart scarf, “the costume of sophisticated adultery.” “I’m a woman who had a moment,” she says at the end, but the play’s resolution is cloudy at best.
Greenberg is an erudite writer, so there are amusing lines sprinkled amongst the hyper-articulate dialogue of his East Coast Jewish liberal depressives. But most of the talk tends to feel studied and uninvolving, so it’s a relief when the action finally expands to bring Anna’s recollections of her romantic adventure to life. On the park bench that occupies a focal position in Santo Loquasto’s austerely stylized modern set, Anna meets a man who introduces himself as Phil (John Procaccino), and so begin their weekly trysts in a nearby hotel
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Lavin, as always puts her own dry spin on every caustic observation. But the problem here is that her Anna is too chronically bitter to allow us to share in her moments of joyous escape. She gives the character no vulnerability, let alone the fragility of a woman losing her wits.
One of the more interesting twists to this scenario about grown offspring being guided through the unknowable recesses of their parents’ past is Anna’s unapologetic selfishness. She admits that she forced the teenage Seth to continue viola lessons at Juilliard long after his musical mediocrity became apparent, in order to provide her with cover for her trips into town. And while the extramarital romance was short-lived, Seth endured two more years of constant failure. But Greenberg refrains from an explosive mother-son clash over this, which might have injected some excitement. Instead, he just has tiresome Seth continue carping.
However, there are bigger secrets than the affair to be revealed. Without giving too much away, one of them concerns Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and their 1953 execution for conspiracy to commit espionage. This is an adventurous fictional detour, but it obliges Greenberg to halt the action and bring up the house lights for a history lesson, given his correct assumption that most of the audience will be rusty on the details. In a play already drowning in spoken exposition, the effect is deadly.
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Anna later confesses to an incident from her twenties that gnawed away at her conscience for decades. It was an act she sees as a damning personal failing, which dictated the dismal choices she made with her life, because she felt that was all she deserved. But the revelation is too anticlimactic to pack the intended emotional wallop, or provide any kind of workable parallel to the Rosenberg subplot. That means there’s little poignancy in the need that Anna and her lover supposedly fulfilled in one another, or in the possibility that knowledge of her experience might help Seth and Abby understand and overcome their respective hangups.
Greenberg has reached for the elusive links between past, present and future before, in richer and more compelling ways. And while Meadow’s actors are all quite accomplished, they struggle to find any heart in characters so unrelentingly “written” that it sucks the life out of them, giving us no reason to care.
Venue: Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, New York
Cast: Linda Lavin, Kate Arrington, Greg Keller, John Procaccino
Director: Lynne Meadow
Playwright: Richard Greenberg
Set designer: Santo Loquasto
Costume designer: Tom Broecker
Lighting designer: Peter Kaczorowski
Sound designer: Fitz Patton
Presented by Manhattan Theatre Club
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