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'Our Mother's Brief Affair' - A Trio of Memory Plays Intertwine

Kate Arrington, Greg Keller, Linda Lavin, and John Procaccino in Our Mother's Brief Affair
(©Joan Marcus)

Richard Greenberg offers up a trio of intertwined memory plays in Our Mother's Brief Affair, which opened last night at Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on Broadway. The densely constructed piece also happens to be frustratingly sprawling, nevertheless it has the ability to amuse and stir hearts.

At its most basic, Brief Affair centers on Seth's recollections of his mother Anna's dotage and her admission of having had an affair while he and his twin sister Abby were just teenagers. Seth assumes that Anna's confession in her hospital room comes from the senility of old age, but as she relates the specifics of how she met her lover—and thanks to corroborating evidence provided by Abby—Seth has to accept that his mother did indeed have the relationship.

It's the moments when Brief Affair shifts back to Anna's middle age heyday that the play's second memory play comes to the fore. Audiences see how Anna and her lover met and watch as their trysts in Central Park become increasingly serious, ultimately leading to the moment they begin taking a hotel room. It's there that the lover makes a startling revelation about his real identity.

As for the third level of memory at work in Brief Affair, it's one that concerns Anna's own childhood and an event that has informed the entirety of her adulthood. Audiences never witness the events of this tale unfold, but when Anna relates the sad story, it almost feels as if it has come to life on the stage.

Greenberg's play flows back and forth in time as these various narratives mesh together, and in director Lynne Meadow's understated and beautifully fluid staging, what could potential confound feels crystal clear, thanks to careful shifts in Peter Kaczorowski's lighting design against Santo Loquasto's abstract, autumnally-hued set and a pair of immaculate performances from Linda Lavin, who stars as Anna, and Greg Keller, who plays son Seth.

Lavin, who delivers Greenberg's expertly phrased epigrams with a marksman's precision, glides between Anna's old age and middle age simply by removing the woman's signature Burberry coat, which doubles as a bathrobe, and shifting her posture. Keller, without the aid of any costume differentiation from designer Tom Broecker shifts between adulthood and childhood simply by changing his body language. Lavin ultimately shifts back even further in time when Anna recalls events from her own childhood, and for a few brief moments, one almost feels as she has become a teenager herself.

Alongside Lavin and Keller are Kate Arrington, who brings a certain dry-humored feistiness to her portrayal of Abby; and John Procaccino, who imbues his portray of the Anna's lover with genuine warmth and, for one brief scene, makes Greg and Abby's dad a coarsely gruff and comic figure.

They are all performance to savor, and oftentimes they are enough to help theatergoers overlook the moments when Greenberg attempts to make his play more grandiose than it probably needs to be. For instance, the problems that Abby, who has relocated from New York to California, has with her lesbian partner seem to be a distraction initially. The playwright ultimately resolves them to balance themes about growing into marriage, just as Anna did on some levels. Nevertheless, these small sections of the play feel as if they are simply literary devices.

Even more problematic are the larger political themes that come into play after the lover has revealed his identity. It's at these moments that Brief Affair takes on a rather didactic tone, and though Greenberg once again resolves them to bring closure to notions of forgiveness—of both others and oneself—the politics upset the balance of what is otherwise a thoroughly charming and compassionate novella that has found its way to the stage.

---- Andy Propst

Our Mother's Brief Affair plays at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (261 West 47th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: manhattantheatreclub.com.