WHAT “Our Mother’s Brief Affair”
WHERE Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St.
INFO $60-$140; 212-239-6200; manhattantheatreclub.com
BOTTOM LINE Lavin wonderful in witty, touching Greenberg play.
To describe Linda Lavin as flawless in “Our Mother’s Brief Affair” suggests we went looking for flaws, which could hardly be less true. Lavin’s singular qualities — the voice that grates and comforts at the same time, the way she expresses an aside with little more than a deep sigh — could, at this point in her rich career, have frozen into a kind of tragicomic Kabuki.
Instead, once again, the actress has channeled her special gifts into another in a seemingly infinite variety of smart, disappointed grown-ups who, in lesser hands, might just be Jewish monster-moms. Best of all, Lavin is challenged here by playwright Richard Greenberg’s lean, lush dialogue, an intimate plot that goes in surprising directions and a character written with as much underlying compassion as overriding impatience.
The four-character memory play is smaller in scale than Greenberg’s “The Assembled Parties,” the wonderful, comparatively epic Tony-nominated play that Lynne Meadow, Manhattan Theatre Club’s artistic director, also staged at this theater in 2013. Like so many of Greenberg’s chamber-sized social studies, “Our Mother’s Brief Affair” is witty and elegantly precise about funny, flawed individuals with a sense of history beyond the latest headline.
Lavin is Anna, a Long Island woman on what son Seth (Greg Keller) refers to as “the last of her many death beds.” In what he believes to be one of her delusional periods, she asks, “Did I ever tell you about my affair?” It turns out Abby, the less favored daughter (Kate Arrington) had known about it since their unlovable dead father (John Procaccino as both husband and suitor) had found incriminating letters.
And so we see the courtship and affair, which took place on days when Anna took Seth to his viola lessons at Juilliard — and Greenberg takes us on unexpected turns in what sound at first to be ordinary family secrets. Meadow brings a tender mercilessness to the style, which mixes the siblings’ unkind but not inaccurate comments to us about their mother and scenes that play out the memories.
Life and death on Long Island, plus amorous meetings on a Central Park bench from 1973 to 2006, all unfold onto Santo Loquasto’s modest set of copper panels. Anna, proud of her genuine Burberry trench coat, keeps it on for her affair and on her death bed. Thus, while her children have settled for unexceptional lives, Anna, at least for a while, has her remarkable moment. It may not turn out to be quite the one that it seems. But when she wistfully remembers, “I felt like a woman whose sadness had glamour,” the moment — like this lovely play — means a lot.