by Samuel L. Leiter
Richard Greenberg’s Our Mother’s Brief Affair, at the Manhattan Theatre Club, is a star vehicle for Linda Lavin. A star vehicle is a play that, whatever other virtues or vices it displays, provides a beloved actor the chance to demonstrate the talents that have made her famous and, more important, a box office draw. The play, as here, may be second-rate, the company uninspired, the writing problematic, but if the star is given the opportunities to verify her star status, most people will be satisfied.
As the star driving Mr. Greenberg’s implausible two-act vehicle, directed by Lynne Meadow, the 78-year-old Lavin is fully up to the task. Looking in fine shape, she offers a performance that satisfies what audiences find most delectable in her repertoire of skills. Comic timing, nuanced readings, subtle (and not so subtle) yet telling facial expressions, graceful elegance, understated New York intonations, personal warmth, and cutting sarcasm are among the many theatrical brushes with which she paints the portrait of Anna Cantor. Anna is a Long Island housewife from a New York liberal Jewish background—she grew up on the Lower East Side—and the mother of gay twins, Seth (Greg Keller) and Abby (Kate Arrington).
Unlike Greenberg’s marvelous last play, The Assembled Parties, set in a beautifully appointed New York apartment and telling its story in conventionally realistic terms, Our Mother’s Brief Affair transpires on Santo Loquasto’s spare setting occupied mainly by an arm chair, ottoman, and park bench; this being a memory play, outside and inside intermingle. Autumnal colors dominate (the lighting is by Peter Kaczorowski), October being Anna’s favorite month.
The play’s structural trickery requires the action to move back and forth in time between 2003 and 1973; a coda scene occurs in 2006. Anna and her children are always present, mingling dialogue with direct address, and even talking to each other in the present while occupying a situation in the past on which they comment while it’s underway.
Greenberg’s dialogue mingles straightforward lines with those smacking of literary pretentiousness, like Seth’s to Anna: “If the photograph is the orgasm of the pose, you were always ready but underserved.” There’s an abundance of one-liners, only a small number of which land, like a reference to 1973’s New York Post, which was then, like the Times, a liberal paper, describing it as “for liberals who weren’t good at folding.”
Anna, perhaps entering senility, is having her latest bout with mortality, which brings to her side Seth, an obituary writer, and Abby, who arrives from California. (A lot of time is occupied with the siblings’ not particularly scintillating small talk about their problematic relationship issues.) Anna wants to tell her children something about her past they’d never suspected so they’ll see she’s not as ordinary as they might have believed. Seth’s profession, in fact, is one reason she’s so inspired. Her secret is that, in 1973, while in Manhattan for Seth’s Saturday music lessons at Juilliard, she—dressed in her “sophisticated adultery” outfit of Burberry trench coat and expensive silk scarf—had an affair with an attractive man (John Procaccino) she met in Central Park. What makes this otherwise banal affair remarkable is that the lover, using the pseudonym Phil Weintraub, confesses that he’s really . . . well, let’s just say he’s an actual historical person who did something for which, decades later, many would still spit on him.
At this point, the play plummets as far south as Antarctica. Especially for me, since the man in question was married to my father’s first cousin. Procaccino resembles Anna’s lover as much as George Clooney does Newt Gingrich. Knowledgeable spectators will flinch in astonishment, but Greenberg is banking on the man’s name being so unfamiliar (even Anna, who should know it, doesn’t) that the play stops and the houselights come up so Seth can explain the man’s story to the audience. And in act two the play spends substantial energy discussing the oft-dramatized events surrounding this guy.
Ultimately, like Anna’s kids, we’re asked to deliberate on the relative truth of Anna’s account. The puzzled Seth insists his mother “was an average situational liar but not at all a maker of fables.” Ultimately, Anna delivers a lengthy monologue, which allows Lavin her big moment as she explains the guilt that drove her into the affair, but it’s just as contrived as the affair itself. Only Lavin’s performance keeps the entire enterprise from disintegrating before our eyes.
For those attending to see a star performance they’ll certainly get one, with Lavin breathing theatrical life into her unconvincing character. Her costars, sorry to say, are unremarkable, playing much of the time as though on a TV sitcom and further demonstrating why Our Mother’s Brief Affair is, for better or worse, a star vehicle.
Our Mother’s Brief Affair
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th Street, NYC
Through March 6
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).