Our Mother’s Brief Affair – Elusive Truth

I think we can safely say that there now exists in theater a Linda Lavin character – the smart, caustic, aggravating, urban Jewish mother with her own fish to fry. That Ms. Lavin herself originates many of these with absolute verisimilitude often provokes audiences to wonder which may have been written for her. Here again, perfect timing of both facial expression and tart, nasal speech one character calls “Flatbush on the Thames,” well enunciated Yiddish, unexpected gravitas, and those great legs are on display to best advantage.

This might be called a memory play. Author Richard Greenberg repeatedly leads us from present to past and back again as Anna (Linda Lavin), from her dozenth hospital “pied-à-terre” and home, fugues in and out of the surprising story of a brief affair. Like the frequently addressed audience, twin adult children, Seth (Greg Keller) and Abby (a naturalistic Kate Arrington) watch as their mother plays out the interlude on a park bench and hotel room without walls. (Set Designer Santo Loquasto) The ‘kids’ also speak to and comment about Anna during reenactments which keeps the episodic play from utter fragmentation.

Linda Lavin and John Procaccino

Anna is described as judgmental, unmaternal, and “an average situational liar, but not at all a maker of fables,” so when she suddenly alludes to a liaison about which Seth knows nothing, he thinks it may be her imagination. Not until Abby arrives from California do we learn that their father had confided his awareness of adultery, even showing Abby letters from Anna’s lover. Still, mom continues to remember other things inaccurately making Seth question every chapter.

An unlikely femme fatale in her Burberry trench coat and Long Island matron attire, Anna initiated a park bench conversation with Phil (John Procaccino) one day while waiting for then 15 year-old Seth to complete his viola lesson. “He was drinking coffee and carrying The (New York) Post, which was different then…it was for liberals who weren’t good at folding.” (A reference to the unwieldy, liberal New York Times and a perfect example of Greenberg’s appealing urbanity.) Seth recoils. “It’s not the sex that bothers you, it’s the secrecy,” Anna astutely observes.

Kate Arrington and Greg Keller

Snippets of mother-son relationship seem to offer grounds for Seth’s reserved attitude toward Anna. Abby does not show up in dramatization of the past. Brother and sister talk about their mother with different perception of experience, much like many close in age siblings. The daughter’s role is less realized than anyone else on stage. One gets the feeling she’s present simply to proffer a more sympathetic opinion. Anna’s husband also makes a single, brief, gratuitous appearance to manifest behavior already relayed in description. Neither of these devices seems worthy of the playwright.

Phil is a bit raw edged but extremely appreciative in ways Anna’s husband is decidedly not. The middle-aged couple begin a pivotal relationship which would evolve over a mere 9 weeks. When her lover divulges his guilty secret -which involves Ethel and Julius Rosenberg- a record on the turntable literally screeches to a stop as theater lights come suddenly up. (‘wildly effective) John Procaccino is entirely believable as the sweet, grateful man whose obtuse amorality lands as shockingly as intended.

Linda Lavin and John Procaccino

The next bit is clogged with exposition and analysis. While one understands the need to explain something of which few of us were aware, this is so detailed it veers on polemic.

Despite Phil’s morally alarming reveal, Anna hangs in until feelings naturally peter out. Neither Seth nor Abby find this comprehensible. When she gets to this part of her recollection, their mother shares her own long buried, guilty secret. Proportionately there’s no comparison, but the depth of Anna’s emotion served to justify what she thought of as penitence where Phil was concerned.

Packing up Anna’s house to move her to a residence, Seth discovers something that again makes him feel her story is at least partly fabricated. Her response only serves to fuel doubt. Like Seth and Abby, we’ll never know the truth. Seth will certainly dwell, while Abby will move on.

Greg Keller and Linda Lavin

Richard Greenberg is a smart, articulate, entertaining author whose specificity enriches his plays. Our Mother’s Brief Affair, however, is less successful than most I’ve seen.

Though the piece orbits around Anna, it’s helmed by a capable Greg Keller (a younger Bradley Whitford look-alike) as Seth. The actor plays abiding resentment, hurt, irritation, and obsession with agitated credibility. That he never sits down adds to the tenor of his reactions. Seth always seems half way out the door in pursuit of truth.

Director Lynne Meadows has kept transitions fluid from period to period. Two-handed scenes with Anna and Phil are sensitively realized. Any parenthesis that includes Abby keeps her on the periphery which compounds conjecture that she’s a device. One can’t help but wonder why Anna’s bed is not a duel-function chaise rather than an armchair and why she sometimes doesn’t take off her trench coat when receding under covers.

Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: At back-Greg Keller; Kate Arrington, Linda Lavin, John Procaccino

Manhattan Theatre Club presents
Our Mother’s Brief Affair by Richard Greenberg
Featuring Linda Lavin, Kate Arrington, Greg Keller, John Procaccino
Directed by Lynne Meadow
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th Street

About Alix Cohen (1186 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.