We gave it a C
No playwright loves manipulating time more than Richard Greenberg. To name just a few examples: 2013’s superbly witty The Assembled Parties, which follows a family from 1980 to 2000 in a palatial apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side; 2001’s ambitious Everett Beekin, which begins with one generation in New York’s Lower East Side in 1947, travels some 50 years and 3,000 miles, and picks up with the next generation in southern California; and 1997’s mysterious, magical Three Days of Rain, which starts with three characters in 1995 and moves back to 1960 to fill in the blanks with their parents.
Time doesn’t jump so dramatically in Our Mother’s Brief Affair, Greenberg’s laugh-filled but insubstantial new comedy (in its Broadway premiere at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre), but it hovers over the play, specter-like, nevertheless. As lifelong New Yorker Anna (the sublime Linda Lavin) is on her deathbed — one of what her son, Seth (Greg Keller), calls a “long series of deathbeds” — dropping such bon mots as “air-conditioning is the key to civilization” and “the potato chip is nature’s most perfect food,” she innocently asks: “Did I ever tell you about my affair?” Thus ensues a series of flashbacks chronicling Anna’s 30-year-old infidelity,with Seth and his twin sister, Abby (Kate Arrington), interjecting commentary and judgment at every turn, plus a scandalous revelation involving the lover’s identity and a brilliant Meryl Streep joke.
The shifts should be smooth, especially given that our primary narrator (Seth) is a writer. Making him an obituary writer is perhaps too on-the-nose, but his description of the profession excuses Greenberg’s indulgence: “I think it’s privileged. To define that moment: When the scrimmage of living is over and the fray of revisionism has yet to be joined. You get to frame the story — a life, its trend; the ironic reversal; the scandal or — rarely now — lack of one.” It’s on Seth to take the audience from 2003 (Anna’s sickbed, a playground where the siblings chat) to 1973 (the bench where the lovers meet, the hotel where they escape). Yet Keller’s Seth is the same no matter the setting, whether he’s talking directly to the audience, confronting his mother in the hospital, or throwing a tantrum as his teenage self. Even his opening line — “Who was she?”—sounds aggressive rather than nostalgic, reflective, or even inquisitive. And while he’s perfectly passable as Anna’s mystery man, John Procaccino is practically cartoonish playing her harried husband, Abe. Arrington fares far better with Greenberg’s particular biting brand of New York humor, as her California-dwelling character muses on Laguna sunsets — “they’re part of something insidious” — and how the place lacks “a sense of apocalyptic intimacy.”
Fortunately, one couldn’t imagine a better Anna than Lavin, who’s still a stunner at 78 (important because Anna “had great legs to her dying day”) and can stop a show with a mere raise of her eyebrow. Moreover, she can pull off a sitcom-territory line like, “His arms came around me, strong and soft. He was wearing Aramis.”
Late in the play, Greenberg rewards Lavin with a meaty memory-within-a-memory monologue , in which Anna recalls her sisters Sophie and Miri (characters, incidentally, that were introduced in Everett Beekin). But such sudden, overwhelming sadness is too much, too late. A Richard Greenberg play at Manhattan Theatre Club is theatrical comfort food; this is his 11th MTC production. Somehow, Our Mother’s Brief Affair got overcooked. C