Photo by Joan Marcus
Written by Richard Greenberg
Directed by Lynne Meadow
Although it’s couple of drafts away from realizing its full potential, Richard Greenberg’s take on end-of-life issues offers a refreshing lightness and honesty. It also sports a meaty part for the estimable Linda Lavin, who, of course, makes the most of the opportunity.
New York obituarist Seth (Greg Keller), has a common middle-age problem. His mother Anna (Lavin), is unwell. Having lost their father a few years back, Seth and his California-based sister Abby (Kate Arrington) are responsible for making sure Anna is taken care of. There’s the usual Rashomon of long-past events remembered differently by Seth and Anna, but for the most part mother and son get along. As the kids sort out Anna’s belongings, though, they discover that she has a provocative secret. Using a private post office box, she secretly, she received torrid (if hardly eloquent) letters from a mysterious paramour known only as “Phil” (John Procaccino). The extramarital affair was short-lived but, judging from the content of the letters, clearly passionate. It’s not so hard for the kids to believe their mother might seek a respite from her dull marriage to kvetchy Abe (Procaccino). But who was Phil really? As we learn through a series of flashbacks, Anna’s lover is none other than David Greenglass, the treacherous brother of Ethel Rosenberg. In the milieu of the New York, Jewish mid-century left, Greenglass is reviled as a collaborator with evil. Back in 1951, he cravenly saved himself and his wife by giving testimony that sent Ethel and her husband Julius to the electric chair. It would be difficult, if not impossible, for anyone to fact-check Anna’s story. After the trial Greenglass lived in Queens under an assumed name. Even his death went unreported by the press until three months after the fact. So, in a way, he’s tailor-made for the delusion/ruse that Anna’s mind had constructed: better to be a footnote to history than die an ordinary person whose brief hour upon the stage doesn’t merit an obituary.
Under Lynne Meadow’s smartly understated direction, the actors paint a convincing portrait of a family facing down a conundrum. Will the truth –if it is knowable at all- really set the family free? Or, are we all, in the end, responsible for the narrative of our own lives, riddled with half-truths as it may be? The performance reaches its peak of poignancy when Anna and Phil, both in desperate need of acceptance, share guilty secrets they could never divulge to their own families. Whether real or imagined, this revelation forces Seth and Abby to see their mother in a new light. Despite the commitment of the cast, though, the evening feels lopsided. Anna and Phil’s relationship gets plenty of time at center stage. But her children’s lives remain off stage. We learn that Seth is gay, but not why he has chosen to withdraw from the dating scene. Abby talks about wanting out of her same-sex relationship, but the conflict is never actually shown. It would be interesting to see firsthand how Anna and Abe’s parenting has shaped Abby and Seth’s adult behavior, and to further explore (as in Tamara Jenkins’s screenplay for The Savages, for example), how the sibling dynamic changes with the passing of the parents. Greenberg endows his characters with an engaging intelligence and originality, but he could get even more out of them if he would find more spots in the script where ideas could be conveyed through dramatic action rather than commentary.
OUR MOTHER’S BRIEF AFFAIR continues through March 6, 2016 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre 261 West 47th Street, Between Broadway and 8th Avenue, New York NY 10036. Tickets: 212-239-6200 or 800-447-7400.