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Our Mother's Brief Affair

Linda Lavin stars in Richard Greenberg's mysterious drama at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.

Kate Arrington, Greg Keller, Linda Lavin, and John Procaccino star in Richard Greenberg's Our Mother's Brief Affair at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.
(© Joan Marcus)

It's disappointing when a play that is intelligently written and generally well-acted just doesn't coalesce. It's especially disappointing when the dramatist is Richard Greenberg, a premier theatrical chronicler of the Jewish-American family. His latest, Our Mother's Brief Affair at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, will no doubt appeal to certain people, especially with the sublime Linda Lavin in the title role. But even a performer as watchable as Lavin can't elevate this sluggish play into a compelling evening of theater.

Lavin stars as Anna, a woman who has been on the verge of death for her entire life, mostly for dramatic purposes. With her age advancing and memory fading, this time might actually be the big one. As her children, Seth (Greg Keller) and Abby (Kate Arrington), gather at her hospital bedside, Anna reveals a discomforting secret: In the late 1970s she had a three-month tryst with another man.

Anna and Phil (John Procaccino, who doubles as Anna's husband, Abe) meet on a bench in Central Park as Anna waits for Seth to be finished with his viola lesson at Juilliard. They hit it off very quickly; Anna experiences an excitement she's never felt before, certainly not with Abe. As their affair becomes a standard Saturday event, Paul makes a startling revelation about his real identity.

This twist, one of two that occurs before the curtain comes down, is supposed to be a shocker for the older segment of the audience and is likely a question mark for the younger set. For the latter group, Greenberg has Seth and Abby step out of the scene and the house lights come up as they deliver a short, Wikipedia-style history lesson. This in itself is a hindrance — what good is a twist so obscure that it must be explained? — but it's also indicative of a larger problem throughout.

Greenberg's storytelling format is in keeping with Seth's occupation. As an obituary writer, it's said that Seth "narrates the dead." That more or less sums up the narrative style and structure of Our Mother's Brief Affair, all recitation and little action. Crucial information is relayed rather than reenacted. All of this telling and very little showing doesn't make for an engaging two hours, and there are points when it feels more like the audience is listening to an audiobook rather than watching a stage play.

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But we can't fault the stylish, dryly humorous dialogue. Greenberg has no peer when it comes to writing for a dying breed of urbane New York Jews, the ones who've emigrated from the Lower East Side to Long Island, while still being a bit wistful for their past. (Similar to his other works, Greenberg builds upon the themes of how the new generation doesn't comprehend what their parents' lives were like way back when.) How he manages to tell us all we need to know about a character through one or two lines is particularly satisfying. "And did you put on that voice?" Seth asks Anna as she describes her first meeting with Phil. "Flatbush-on-the-Thames?"

That line in and of itself sums up Anna, a juicy character that Lavin, who has spent a lot of her career specializing in brusque Jewish moms, could essay in her sleep. But this performance is more accomplished and powerful than Lavin's recent work, where "acid-tongued indomitable force" is the only descriptor. Here, alongside the generous helping of zingers (delivered with her usual finesse) Lavin goes darker, particularly impressing with her fragility.

Anna has a secret other than her affair. It's a boulder she's carried with her from her days on the Lower East Side. When it comes time for it to be revealed, we watch as Lavin pries herself open from her ribcage. She crumbles and rebuilds herself, remaking her life along the way. In watching her performance, particularly in the second act, Lavin reminds us that she really is an actress to be reckoned with, not just a performer who has a way with tart repartee. She's simply marvelous.

Keller, Arrington, and Procaccino are not up to Lavin's level, but that feels more a fault of the text in their cases. Though their individual performances are fine, they're not asked to do much or dig very deep. While director Lynne Meadow keeps the piece moving fluidly, the design choices feel as abstract as the show's revelation. Santo Loquasto's autumn-colored set distracts more than enhances while Peter Kaczorowski's lighting is strangely dim. Tom Broecker's perfectly modern costumes are the most realistic design element.

In the end, one wonders about Greenberg's intended impact. We leave shrugging our shoulders, wondering if Our Mother's Brief Affair would instead make a better novella.

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