Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th St. between Broadway & Eighth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through March 6, $60-$140
Our Mother’s Brief Affair, Richard Greenberg’s eleventh collaboration with Manhattan Theatre Club, starts off promisingly enough, but a bizarrely bombastic reveal shortly before intermission derails the rest of this quiet family drama. Tony winner Linda Lavin stars as Anna, a variation of a character previously introduced in Greenberg’s Everett Beekin and played by Bebe Neuwirth in 2001 at Lincoln Center. On one of her many deathbeds yet again, the Burberry-loving Anna tells her son, Seth (Greg Keller), that she had an affair with a man (John Procaccino) back in 1973, when she took Seth to Juilliard for his weekly music class. Although Seth, an obituary writer used to examining people’s lives in death, thinks she’s just making up another story, his twin sister, Abby (Kate Arrington, in her seventh Greenberg work), confirms its truth. Anna’s confession becomes even more shocking when she tells them who the man is, a minor but real person in the Cold War and a figure of revulsion to New York’s Jewish intelligentsia. The name is less than well known enough to require a sort of extended live footnote, so the show comes to a screeching halt as Seth and Abby explain who he is and what he did. Greenberg’s choice of partner for Anna is so head-scratchingly strange that the play simply can’t get back on track.
Lavin (The Lyons, The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife), at seventy-eight, adds some sex appeal to her role as a mother with secrets of her own that are finally coming out, as she claims once again to be facing the end. Procaccino (Incident at Vichy, Nikolai and the Others), one of New York theater’s busiest, and most dependable, actors, is laden down with playing a historical figure that overwhelms his presence. Keller (The Who and the What, Of Good Stock) and Arrington (Grace, The Iceman Cometh), as dysfunctional gay twins, are expository characters who never quite develop their own personalities. Santo Loquasto’s easygoing set consists of a few chairs and a park bench, where Seth, Abby, Anna, her husband (also played by Procaccino), and her lover go back and forth between 1973, 2003, and 2006, with everyone watching what unfolds regardless of what time period they are from, which is occasionally unnerving. MTC artistic director Lynne Meadow never quite pulls together the time shifts and plot reveals; despite a fine lead performance by Lavin, Our Mother’s Brief Affair — which was originally staged as a slightly shorter one-act in 2009 by South Coast Rep, with Jenny O’Hara, Arye Gross, Marin Hinkle, and Matthew Arkin and directed by Pam MacKinnon — feels more like a short story, or a subplot from another play, unable to sustain itself, particularly because it just can’t support the major twist that pulls the rug out from under whatever possibilities it might have had.