By Tulis McCall
Our Mother’s Brief Affair, Manhattan Theater Club’s Friedman Theatre, is a play for which there is no purpose. Well, perhaps that is a bit strong. This is, after all, a play about a Woman of a Certain Age who has been buried alive in a sad marriage that turned her into a sad person and subsequently a sad mother. This is a play about the present and the very long past that lead up to it.
The husband is gone, thank God, and Anna (Linda Lavin) is on her way out. This is one of her favorite past times her son Seth (Greg Keller) tells us. He tells us a lot of things about his mother, and so does his sister Abby (Kate Arrington). In fact this is how we discover who Anna is – or who she appears to be.
Anna is a remote woman given to posing in a variety of positions and keeping mostly to herself unless she feels an opinion is warranted. Air conditioning is the key to civilization. But speaking the truth about who she is and how she is feeling is not one of her favorite past times in the same way that being ill and appearing close to death is.
In the opening scene Seth tells us She was nostalgic but not for anything that had ever happened. And if we were being Holmes-like we would make a note at that moment. For what follows is a tale of Anna’s of which her children had no notion. If this play does any service, it is to remind us all of that fuzzy area between parent and child when the latter realizes that the former is a fully formed human being who had to navigate all of life’s waterways in addition to being a full time parent.
Anna, as the title indicates, had an affair. And on this particular death-bed, she has a hankering to tell her children all about it. Did I mention that both of the kids are gay? Well, they are, and Anna is none too crazy about this idea, but then she was never too crazy about them being twins to begin with. She felt awkward and abnormal with two children. Just another nail in the coffin of her unhappy lot.
Back to the affair – Anna tells the children – as they interrupt and chat to one another – of the weeks she spent keeping company with Phil – or was it David? The story itself does not seem enough for Greenberg who introduces a surprise element that is pulled out of a hat. After that all bets are off. Anna has a secret too, which she has to tell and it is added on to the pile of facts that amount to very little.
Not only does Richard Greenberg wander the fields with this tale – the direction and staging are confounding. The staging of park bench, hospital room, hotel room and other locations are confusing. In addition, Ms. Lavin is forced to wear a Burberry for most of the play, even when she moves from a park bench to a hospital chair (or is it a bed?), and in her intimate scenes with her lover (John Procaccino) she keeps the coat on and never puts her purse down. Lavin manages these awkward requirements with style and grace. She travels the decades from 1958 to the present without a ripple, and we are able to flow back and forth easily. This and Mr. Keller’s performance are a pleasure to watch.
In the end, however, this is a story that lacks purpose and drive. We are never let in far enough to connect with these characters. People talk about events, and reveal little. The “story” and it’s ultimate twist and revelation is intriguing, but we discover the truth too late. What is the conclusion of the play is really the beginning of another story that is universal – how do we make our lives count when there is little time left to do so? Just as the question is raised, the play ends, and the flame of that question is snuffed out.
Our Mother’s Brief Affair – By Richard Greenberg; directed by Lynne Meadow
WITH: Linda Lavin (Anna), Kate Arrington (Abby), Greg Keller (Seth) and John Procaccino (Lover/Abe).
Sets by Santo Loquasto; costumes by Tom Broecker; lighting by Peter Kaczorowski; sound by Fitz Patton; production stage manager, Diane DiVita; general manager, Florie Seery; director of production, Joshua Helman; associate artistic producer, Stephen M. Kaus; line producer, Nicki Hunter. Presented by Manhattan Theater Club, Ms. Meadow, artistic director; Barry Grove, executive producer. Through March 6 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, 261 West 47th Street, 212-239-6200, manhattantheatreclub .com. Running time: 2 hours.