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Poignancy buried under punchlines

In his new play, “Our Mother’s Brief Affair”, Richard Greenberg’s cleverness sends him off course

Emily Bobrow | February 2nd 2016

“Did I ever tell you about my affair?” It is a provocative question for a parent to ask her adult son, a declaration in disguise. I am not just your mother, she is saying, but also a woman with needs, feelings and frustrated desires. But can a child ever see his mother clearly? Are parents ever allowed to be anything other than parents? These are the questions that hang over “Our Mother’s Brief Affair”, an uneven new play from Richard Greenberg that recently opened at the Manhattan Theatre Club on Broadway.

The play’s premise is promising enough. The engaging Linda Lavin is Anna, a faded beauty who enjoys holding court from what she presumes is her death bed. (A hardy hypochondriac, she is the kind of woman whose waning years include a long series of death beds, her stays in the hospital frequent enough for her son to call it her “pied-a-terre”.) Anna’s sense of the present may be fading, but her recollections of her past seem as vivid as ever. She decides it is finally time to tell her grown-up children – twins in their forties – about her romantic affair with a beguiling man with a big secret many decades ago.

“I wore my Burberry, my scarf”, Anna recalls grandly. Dressed in this “costume of sophisticated adultery”, she was a still-fetching housewife on a bench in Central Park when a handsome man (John Procaccino) approached her. Their flirtation swiftly evolved into weekly assignations, timed to coincide with her teenage son’s weekly viola lessons at Juilliard. It was all rather heady, she tells her discomfited children. “I felt like a woman of mystery; I felt like a woman whose sadness had glamour.”

There is plenty of drama in this aching bit of storytelling. Anna enacts her memories as she describes them, dressed in her trench coat on a bench. With arched eyebrows and practised coquettishness, she delights in the charms of her younger self, and in forcing her children to see her as something other than a mother. Her daughter, Abby (Kate Arrington), appreciates this exotic reprieve from the frustrations of her own domestic life. Her son, Seth (a somewhat wooden Greg Keller), is more critical and impatient, particularly after discovering that his mother’s reasons for pushing him to continue with the viola had nothing to do with talent. Memories, misunderstandings and the often selfish ways parents and children talk past each other – this is potent material.

The problem is that the play’s poignancy is too often buried under punchlines. Delivered in the patois of New York Jews (lots of “oy” and “shah” and references to shpilkes and mishegas), the script feels over-eager to entertain the greying New Yorkers that make up MTC’s audience. Abby quips that being their father’s favourite was “like being given the ethics medal by Benito Mussolini”. Anna complains to her single, gay son, “If you’re not gonna sleep with anyone anyway, why not be straight?” Seemingly significant details, such as the fact that Seth writes obituaries and Abby is preoccupied with the Holocaust, end up feeling like little more than quirky attributes. A prolific, Tony-award-winning dramatist, Greenberg is often praised for his hyper-articulate plays, but this is just another way of saying his characters often sound more clever than real.

Yet a more troubling snag may be that the play’s big revelations feel anti-climactic. The supposed drama of “Our Mother’s Brief Affair” is less the affair itself than the identity of the man Anna claims to have bedded, who ends up being someone of historic renown. This is meant to be shocking, yet few in the audience will recognise his name, much less recall the reason for his significance (a flaw Greenberg attempts to remedy with some clumsy exposition). This dramatic pivot shifts the dialogue away from the powerful stuff of family and towards some half-hearted nods to politics and history.

The effect is awkward, even silly at times. This is a shame. Surely a play about a flawed mother who is tired of being needed by her children, and the ageing, aggrieved children who still seem to need her anyway, would have been gripping enough.

Our Mother’s Brief Affair Manhattan Theatre Club, New York, to March 6th

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