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Broadway Reviews

Our Mother's Brief Affair

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - January 20, 2016

Our Mother's Brief Affair by Richard Greenberg. Directed by Lynne Meadow. Scenic design by Santo Loquasto. Costume design by Tom Broecker. Lighting design by Peter Kaczorowksi. Sound design by Fitz Patton. Cast: Linda Lavin, Kate Arrington, Greg Keller, John Procaccino.
Theatre: Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, between Broadway and 8th Avenue
Running Time: 2 hours, including intermission
Tickets: Telecharge

Linda Lavin
Photo by Joan Marcus

Love and history collide on planes both personal and global in Our Mother's Brief Affair, the curious and frequently flavorless confection by Richard Greenberg that just opened at the Samuel J. Friedman in a Manhattan Theatre Club production. What do they mean, separately or together, and what does the alternately leaden and breezy piece mean when they're combined within the ripples of memory? There's no easy way to tell, and without Linda Lavin at the helm, there wouldn't be an especially compelling reason to investigate.

Lavin, however, makes anything interesting just by coming within 10 feet of it, so this inscrutable little evening, which has been indifferently (though not poorly) directed by Lynne Meadow, is actually ornamented with occasional flashes of emotional insight. These arise fairly naturally through the skin of Anna, an aging-approaching-elderly woman who's suffering from dementia and rapidly losing everything about her that defines her as, well, her. When she remembers--or invents?--something, whether inspired by a glint from long ago or prodded on by her adult children, Seth (Greg Keller) and Abby (Kate Arrington), Lavin ensures that you recognize the pieces coming into place, of natural order returning briefly to an unnatural state of being.

It's not incidental that this occurs again and again over nearly two hours; in fact, it's more or less the point. When there's nothing left of you but who you were, and even that's lost to time, there are no new gifts you're able to concretely pass on to those who come later. How do you deal with that reality? Lavin's Anna does so playfully, with a coy, though dark, smile that suggests the illusion of control everyone knows she no longer possesses. In the opening scene, Seth attempts to reconstruct the pieces of his mother from what little fragments remain in his own head ("Air conditioning is the key to civilization" rings one of her echoes; "The potato chip is nature's most perfect food," cries another) and succeeds only in invoking a spirit that may or may not be reliable.

Is this important or relevant? Quite a bit, as it turns out, to Seth. (Less to us, but we'll get to that.) He is, you see, an obituary writer, so cobbling together a final concrete truth from what may or may not be a collection of lies is his life's work. "Death still has to be orderly for the obit writer to continue functioning," he explains. "It has to be proportionate.... I like my deads"--his subjects--"most of them. They've led interesting lives. The part about the dying: that's not so fun--you sometimes have to be a flatfoot, snoop around the almost gone; that's--ghoulish, that can skeeve you." You can probably see where this is going, and imagine the hows and whys of the process he applies to his own mother now that her time has arrived. And chances are you wouldn't be wrong.

Linda Lavin joined by Kate Arrington, Greg Keller, and John Procaccino
Photo by Joan Marcus

Our Mother's Brief Affair is, by and large, a memory play in tradition if not quite execution; this is one, after all, where the primary memory can't be trusted entirely (if at all). That's not a bad idea, and for Greenberg, who's made a career of investigating existential crises of this nature, it's something of a natural evolution, though it ironically proves to be one he should trust more on its own terms. Instead, he introduces a "twist" involving a fourth character, the "affair" of the title (played by John Procaccino), who appears just before intermission to tantalize Anna's wounded heart with his kindness and attention and our intellects with a secret of national, and perhaps international, importance.

This may open the door to the playwright toying further with the underlying concept of certainty (do and should Seth's and Abby's approaches to their mother change when the stakes are infinitely higher?), but the resulting action unfolds in such an understated and frankly underdeveloped way that its impact is negligible. It doesn't help that Greenberg needs to forces Seth and Abby onto a fourth-wall-smashing detour to explain the matter, which is rarely a good sign, but he's further constrained by Anna's own limitations with regard to accuracy and unreliability. You have less reason to believe her than to not believe her, which doesn't exactly lead to the gritty battle of the minds Greenberg tries to limn in his finale, which heats to lukewarm at best.

Meadow infuses the proceedings with a handsome, though sometimes thin, imaginary air that's accentuated by Santo Loquasto's dream-kissed scenic design, Tom Broecker's costumes, and Peter Kaczorowski's coolly fanciful lighting. Procaccino's earnest portrayal is acceptable if unexceptional in these surroundings; Keller and Arrington play better off of the conceit, drawing clear lines of delineation between the tangible and the maybe-made-up worlds, both imbuing their performances with the melancholy tinges of people who want to believe, but can't, the stories of romance that made their mother a woman deeper than they knew. (Seth is single ostensibly by choice; Abby is separated from her partner by gaps of both distance and time she may have let open too easily.)

As Lavin plays her, though, Anna is never simply a standard-issue cipher. She may appear optimistic on the exterior, but there's a haunted, lost quality underneath the bonds her, however tenuously, to her children, and ensures that she's an enigma we want to unwrap even if the specifics of her situation fall flat as a greater dramatic device. Lavin forever hints at more beneath the surface, another mystery to unravel and another question to unpack as we try to make sense of someone about whom concrete details grow more distant and indistinct with each passing moment.

Yet Anna doesn't weep for herself, and ultimately insists we don't, either. Don't we all want to believe we could be like her and behave like her right to the very end? We can, she teases, if we give up or reestablish the past, which not everyone is willing or able to do. But she's still creating herself anew, even as she's ceasing to be who she's been for decades--a development that, in Lavin's hands, is consistently empowering and intermittently inspiring. It's a rich spin on a character who on some level deserves it, even if the paint-by-numbers Our Mother's Brief Affair doesn't.

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