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Our Mother's Brief Affair - Elizabeth Ahlfors

The Gin Game

Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th Street
Opening: 02/21/16; Ending 03/06/16
Two hours.  One intermission
Playwright: Richard Greenberg
Director: Lynne Meadows
Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors

It's always enjoyable watching Linda Lavin unravel compelling interpretations of sharp women of a certain age.  

It is disappointing when her interpretations are the highlights of an uninspiring play.   Even more disappointing is when this disappointing work comes from Richard Greenberg, an acclaimed playwright known for sharp lines and intelligent insight.  

Directed by Lynne Meadows, Our Mother's Brief Affair, opens its New York premier with Seth, an obituary writer, telling the audience about his mother and the woman beneath the facade.  Linda Lavin plays the mother, Anna, a Long Island woman who has always lived her life by the rules -- her mother's rules, her father's rules, society's rules.  Beneath this facade, however, she harbors an enticing, seductive, unique other personality.

Now, getting older and losing grasp of her memories, she is having one of a series of deathbed moments and wants to talk to her two children, Seth (Greg Keller) and Abby (Kate Arrington).  She wants them to know she is more than just their mother, that she had a life that they know nothing about and she was important.  In addition, since Seth is an obituary writer, Anna wants him to write a colorful obituary about her after she dies, although he points out, "Mom... I'm sorry... but...people like you don't generally get obituaries."  

Anna, who always had a flair for the dramatic, asks, "Did I ever tell you about my affair?”  She takes the play back, setting the scene like a '50's movie.  

"It was one of those October days.  My scarf was looking especially pretty and what with the borough of Queens separating me from your father, my mood was good."  In the 1970's, while she was passing time as Seth took viola lessons at Juilliard, she met a man in the park, Phil (John Procaccino).  There was a mutual attraction and they had an affair.  It lasted for ten or 11 weeks.  There are, however, questions about how much of Anna's story is true.

Anna goes on to say that Phil later admits his real name was actually David Glassburg, and he played a role in the famous historical spy case of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.  At this point, the lights go up and Seth steps into narrator mode to explain to the audience about the well-known Rosenberg trial of the '50's.  Apparently, Greenberg felt this incident had to be explained although the conceit clutters the play's flow.  

Finally Anna reveals a secret about her own childhood, something that has lived inside her since.  This admission is the most poignant scene in the play as Lavin adds a new and deeper layer of sympathy to Anna.  

Anna's children are both underwritten characters for two persuasive actors, Keller and Arrington, and the fact that their characters are both gay without satisfying sex lives is inconsequential, adding little to the situation.  Lavin, looking sensational, dressed by costume designer, Tom Broecker, in a Burberry trench coat and orange scarf, makes the most of her ambiguous character with razor timing for one-liners and sly physical movements.  Procaccino is persuasive as Anna's lover.

Beautifully produced with an abstract autumnal setting by Santo Loquasto and Peter Kaczorowski's expressive lighting, Manhattan Theatre Club's new production of Richard Greenberg's Our Mother's Brief Affair is a play without plot or drama.  What it has, however, is Greenberg's smart dialogue for Linda Lavin.  When Seth notes about his mother, "She could be intensely absent," he tells a lot about Anna and Lavin gets it, matchless in sending sharp barbs of mystery insinuating through this passive-aggressive lady with dementia.