Richard Greenberg’s new play is of the school from which the story “The Lady or the Tiger?” sprang. It has enigmatic hints of Harold Pinter in it as well, though Mr. Greenberg’s ear for his New York upper middle class and blue collar characters is alluringly accurate. This Manhattan Theatre Club production offers us Linda Lavin as another of her New York mothers: sisters of those she’s already played in Broadway Bound, The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, and The Lyons. These ladies could all have come from the same genetic pool, but Lavin has given each of them unique qualities that embraced and enhanced the diverse writing styles of such gifted writers as Neil Simon, Charles Busch, and Nicky Silver.
Now Richard Greenberg offers another rich role in “Anna,” an elderly woman who has been fooling around with Death for half a lifetime as she tries harder and harder to disengage herself from her twin children. In the first act of this eloquent and funny play, she banters with both of them. Not a lot happens until she decides to share with her son (who in turn informs his sister) a secret affair she claims to have had in her forties, when the boy was fifteen and attending Julliard as a student of the viola. He never understood why she insisted he continue his studies long past his interest in the viola, and she reveals the secret that she was having an affair with a man she met in Central Park one day when she was waiting for her son to finish his lesson.
John Procaccino plays her lover, and briefly appears as her dead husband as well. Kate Harrington and Greg Keller bring resignation and acceptance to the twins, and Keller has a fine way with a comic thought, and he in particular seems able to cope with his mother’s impossible demands. She questions everything about him — his gay life because he is virtually celibate which makes her wonder why, if he’s not sleeping with a man, could he not be straight and not sleep with a woman?). She knocks his profession as a writer of obituaries, which gives him the opportunity to explain how he finds that job fulfilling. Her relationship with her daughter is sketchy, but the girl is not bitter about that, having been close enough to her father.
The second act takes us into some murky territory as Mom surprises by recanting on her story of the affair, and changes the name and entire persona of her lover, suggesting he was a peripheral character in a sensational mid-1950s crime scene. Though this twist gives substance to the rather plotless play, it doesn’t satisfy because it’s never made clear whether any of it really happened. Mother seems genuinely fed up with motherhood and wants it known that she was more than a mother; that she was a woman with a life of her own, and it’s her view that it doesn’t matter whether her stories have any validity or not.
Artistic Director Lynne Meadow has staged the free-flowing material neatly and clearly so it can move effortlessly from home to hospital to park bench without pause for set changes. Santo Loquasto’s scenic design is representational and with help from Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting it allows the play to unfold gracefully.
Linda Lavin is one actress who understands that subtext is everything in a character study. She can be quiet, contained, subtly responsive to little hurts or pleasures, and in this play her playwright has supplied her with language that reveals her intelligence, her wit and her ability to feed her own emotional needs no matter how neurotic they are. I would have preferred more of a catharsis for her Anna, but that cannot diminish the great pleasure I experienced from the first-rate support she received from the other three actors, from the distinctive use of language to reveal character, and for the artful performance of Linda Lavin as an attractive woman whose life did not take her down paths of her own liking.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours, including an intermission.
Our Mother’s Brief Affair is playing at The Samuel J. Friedman Theatre – 261 West 47th Street, Between Broadway and 8th Avenue, in New York City. For tickets, go to the box office, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 or (800) 447-7400, or purchase them online.